My Take on Raising Multilingual Kids

I grew up trilingual: Indonesian, English and the Javanese dialect. I later spent two years learning Japanese at school (and forgot them all), two years of Mandarin (and forgot most of it other than very basic conversation), and two years of Spanish (which I still speak today).

Now I have a two year-old daughter exposed to three languages at home. So I get a lot of questions on how to raise a multilingual kid. Here’s a list of things that work in my situation:

1. Immersion

The four languages I still use are the products of immersion, not in-class learning. My parents never missed an opportunity to host an exchange student from overseas or entertain a foreign guest. Then they would occasionally leave me to entertain the guest. Ha! ☺

The result: I was already holding up hour-long conversations with English native speakers when my friends were learning “How are you?” in Grade 4.

And while I learned Spanish in a classroom as an adult, I spent a month living in Paraguay after one year of learning and I have friends in Latin America whom I continue to stay in touch with. They use me to learn English, I use them to practice Spanish.

2. Songs

Most people are not lyrical listener of songs, meaning they don’t pay much attention to the full lyrics. I do. Growing up in the 90s, I listened to songs while reading the lyrics until I could sing them by memory. I memorized all NKOTB’s songs to Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”. Yes, including the rap bit.

I learned a number of bad words along the way, but most importantly I learned how to use words in various context, how words become sentences, sentences become stanzas, and how beautiful it is when sentences rhyme. Through songs, I also learned that Roxette’s lyrics are really poor English.

3. Bed-Time Stories

My mom read me stories since I was little. When she got bored reading the same books over and over, she made up her own stories or told me something about the family. My mom, an English lecturer, passed on her passion for language and literature to me. She never “taught” me to read, but nevertheless I could read at age 5, even before my friends started learning “ini ibu budi”.

4. Story-Telling

My mom and dad were really good about giving me opportunities to tell a story. Their questions were mostly open ended, like, “Why do you think that’s an elephant and not a tiger?” And I would blurt out sentences like because the “nose” is long, it’s grey, it’s huge, and the ears are floppy.

As I grew older, their questions would be more like, “What do you think?”

To them, language skills are never just about vocabs and memorization of greetings. It’s about being able to use it to communicate.

In addition, I should say that my dad only learned English in his late forties and he had no chance of passing an English exam. But he could deliver formal presentations and engage in day-long discussions on serious matters in English. If I’m an employer, I’d hire my dad over someone who gets A in English exams but is a terrible communicator.

5. Less is More

When I was a child, there was only one TV channel. So my dad recorded, like, 10 half-hour cartoons and I watched them over and over and over again. Eventually I remembered the dialogue line by line, and unconsciously learned sentence structures as well as proper (and improper) responses to questions.

There are so many content and materials these days, it’s really tempting NOT to stick to one set of materials or methodology. My advice: continue to use one set of materials that appeals to your child until he/she masters them before moving on.

6. Internal Motivation

I flunked Japanese real bad and managed to learn nothing in two years simply because I HAD to learn it as part of high school graduation requirement. I had no desire of learning it.

On the other hand, I really wanted to speak Spanish and I was conversational within a year even though I only spent two hours a week in a classroom. The rest was me happily and willingly doing my own practice, from listening to Gloria Estefan to chatting to Spanish-speaking friends.

In summary, what I could say to other parents is that my parents never forced language on me. They simply made sure we grew up in a home where good books are aplenty and the use of multiple languages is the norm. The love of linguistics and literature came later, unforced. And they never used flash cards!!!