Hindsight is always 20/20

I recall sitting in a cozy café, sipping a frothy cappuccino while reading all the books I could find on the subject of multilingual parenting atop a basketball-shaped belly. I read dozens of theories and practical tips and case studies for several hours until my cup went cold. In my Before Children (BC) mind and given my BC freedom to read for hours upon uninterrupted hours (oh, the life!), I had managed to figure multilingual parenting all out, and had notes to refer back to, in the event a language-learning dilemma should arise. But just like breastfeeding books have never met your baby and your breasts or sleep training books have never assessed your ability to endure the cry of your own child, these books on multilingualism had never met our family. It is no secret that each family unit interested in fostering a multilingual home has a special reason to do so, a linguistic environment inside and outside the home so very unique to them and let’s not forget, parents with different personalities and varying levels of time to invest in the language learning process. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise then, that even quite early on, some of this “bulletproof theory” I had read demanded reviewing when faced with our reality.

Our little Ayo is currently 13 months young and already, there are plenty of ways I would approach multilingual parenting differently if I were to do it all over again. Here are three things I would do differently:

1. I’d focus on building my vocabulary, not my son’s

All language learning books will tell you to “read, read, READ in the target language as a crucial way to build vocabulary. In one blog post, I wrote about my grandiose plans to “read five books to Ayo per day“..but not get all legalistic about it (yeah right!). Well, would you believe it, life as a stay at home mother can be HARD and DRAINING at times! There are days when we can plow through ten books together. Then there are others. On those days, I have little energy to sit down. On those days, Ayo eats MY BOOKS! On those days, he tears the first book, then the second from my hands and squirms out of my arms to play with his blocks. On those days, because of my self-inflicted goal, I felt defeated, like any type A, “achiever” person would.

Today, I will read as much as my son wants and enjoy that moment for as long as it may last. But I am choosing not to enforce unnecessary arbitrary goals. Those goals don’t make our home feel enjoyable or free. If I got a chance to write that post about our language experiment again, I would focus my energy on setting goals for myself to learn new vocabulary and stay up to date first and foremost in French, but also in my other active languages (German, Mandarin, Italian). After all, my son’s vocabulary is pretty much limited to the words I use at this point in time. I know that staying current is a challenge all parents face when teaching a minority language outside their home country. Reading reading READING (and listening to internet radio/TV) is even more important when the language I am teaching my son is technically not my biological mother tongue.

2. We would have taught our son Baby Sign Language

Among the items handed down to us when I was pregnant was a baby sign language DVD and quick reference guide. Never having seen a baby really sign beyond “more”, “all done” and “thank you”, I figured the idea was somewhat ridiculous. And if it did work, wouldn’t it just become one more thing for Ayo (and us!) to have to learn? We’ll just teach our kid to speak like the rest of us! I thought.

Today, I see that we would reduce increasing frustration in our home as Ayo starts to know what he wants but not how to say it. In addition, there are plenty of articles proving that Baby Sign Language decreases confusion in multilingual households. It isn’t hard to understand how signs can assist language acquisition by providing a common ‘language’. The ‘two hands raised’ sign brings together two languages together: c’est fini = all done! I wouldn’t teach him every word, but I would start with some of the most useful 20 or so signs to replace the endless pointing he is doing on his own now anyway.

3. I wouldn’t be so nervous about language interference

Several books and blogs that I read on the subject of multilingual parenting, reminded parents that linguistic output is proportionate to language input. Others strongly recommend One Parent One Language (OPOL) families reinforcing two languages before adding a third, fourth and so on. I combined these two pieces of theoretical advice and interpreted them this way: if our son was to be successful at speaking French in an environment heavily dominated by English speakers, I should ensure that all media sources be in French. Also, we certainly shouldn’t attempt to introduce subsequent languages until he reaches three years of age. Practically speaking, when Ayo awoke from his nap, I would literally turn off a Mandarin language podcast, an Italian cooking show or a German song and switch on France Info, the French news or a French playlist on Spotify. If we found NPR playing in the car or a Hindi Putumayo CD, I’d switch on a French CD. In the back of my mind, I reasoned we would switch media on in the other languages on when he was three years old. When we started to go to a Chinese church, my French-English purist model was shattered: why would I ever deprive Ayo from hearing Mandarin? That made no sense at all!

I feel sad about how I prevented Ayo from experiencing the full linguistic breath organically sprouting in our home. To rub salt into the wound, I recently watched a video about critical periods for language learning and how the first twelve months of an infant’s life are absolutely exceptional in terms of picking up sounds in the same way a native would. Ouch! Sure, I know all the benefits of frequent and consistent interaction in French, us listening to French radio or children’s songs, reading French books and later on movies watched in French – but today, I choose to no longer worry about language interference. I believe we are consistent enough in French and English not to have to worry that other languages will interfere in that learning process. In looking back, I would much rather our son experience the rich natural linguistic fabric of our lives.


This post was written for the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival, organized by thepiripirilexicon.com.

This month’s carnival is hosted by mulitilingualmama.com and will be available on April 29,2013. Head over there to read really interesting blog posts written by other multilingual parents on the theme of ‘Looking Back’!



11 thoughts on “Hindsight is always 20/20

  1. So glad to discover your blog today via the blogging carnival.

    I love your first point…I wish I made time to read in my other languages too to keep up my vocabulary- that would be far more helpful than many of the other ways I can easily waste my time (eh-hem Facebook!) Also enjoyed your “About Us” as even though I was raised in the US to American parents, I feel much like this most of the time: “I sounded like an American but felt no sense of belonging to this country.” I’ve never quite understood why since I grew up here but have always found I am happiest and more “at home” (a total oxymoron, I realize) when living out of the country.

    1. Thanks for leaving a comment, Stephanie! Clever of you to spot the “about us” section as it is sort of hidden in the sidebar there. 🙂 If you were raised in the US to American parents but later discovered you were more at home outside the States, I wonder if you would consider yourself a Third Culture Adult (TCA) – which is different to the Adult Third Culture kid, which is what I am: a grown up kid who lived cross-culturally during my formative years. The TCA has lots of similarities with the ATCK…

  2. I too had the idea that I was going to read loads of books in English every day. After 20 months he does get at least one book a day but as often as not is in Portuguese as I am just too tired to do it in English so I let my wife or mother-in-law read to him.

    I have also been thinking that sign language would have been a good idea. He already uses a lot of signs that he has developed himself. Maybe next time (if there is a next time).

    1. We all have these grandiose ideas about every aspect of parenting before we have kiddos. I am so glad we are given more than just a few months to “perform our best”, and have to learn to be realistic. I have learned so much about myself in this process…and about just allowing myself to be real in the daily grunt of multilingual (or any aspect of) parenting! That which comes most naturally is the way we should parent, in my opinion!

  3. Good day! This is my first visit to your blog!

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  4. Really good post !
    and yes i completly agree with building up your own vocabulary !
    We let our daughter watch Baby Signing Time and she still loves it (we actually showed it to her around 14months)! About 1 week after starting to watch it she was starting to express herself more, she has learned alot of words and loves saying them and signing them 🙂 even if she doesn’t do the sign for all of them, at least she remembers the words!
    Now she comes up to me and says mommy baby time ! can’t say no !! lol
    so you could stay show ayo 🙂

    1. So interesting that you taught M baby sign-language. Is this a “thing” in France now at all? I am out of the loop!

  5. Great post, Esther. As we are getting ready to have this baby, I am thinking of speaking only German to it, but feel like I need a “why” for that massive decision.

    I think it’s b/c it’s the language I grew up with (even though I was born and raised in Canada), and I want our baby to develop an ear for languages, even if it doesn’t end up living in or traveling to Germany much later in life. Does that sound valid to you?

    Thanks for the tips you shared… I kinda had the same thoughts as you about baby sign language, thinking it’s just a trend that will pass, but sounds like there’s quite a lot of merit to it after all. Will have to give it a shot. What’s the best product you would recommend for it?

    I’ve found that listening to German podcasts is a good way for me to keep developing my German vocab… and they’re nice and free 🙂

    Thanks again for all your insight.


    1. Keep up the German podcasts! I do that for Mandarin and it is very helpful!

      Only you can make a decision on whether or not you have enough ability and passion to teach German and how intensively you will do so. Some questions I asked myself before only speaking French to my son as a non-native: Will I be able to share my heart with my son in this language? Do I love this language enough to maintain it for myself and to go out of the way to enable consistent and solid foundations? Is our family (husband) supportive enough that we could make this a value in our home: through travel, schooling, nannies who speak this language?
      You can of course also choose to give your kid the chance to learn the language through an au pair / nanny or a weekend school. Or you can teach them a word or two. It is only gain to your child. Just depends on your priorities…

      Baby sign language didn’t feel all that relevant to me in the first year, but as with all types of communication..you reap the harvest later on. Today, Ayo uses basic signs daily and it saves us from hearing him yell or cry out of frustration. I don’t have any specific program or product I can recommend. I don’t bother with more advanced things like colors, vehicles or things like that – I would just learn the basic few I linked to in my post on a youtube or something! Literally, MORE, ALL-DONE and HELP are the most vital to us at this point in time. Not too much to learn for mama or baby! We may teach another 10-20 max signs to subsequent babies but yeah, I wouldn’t go crazy either.

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