Beta is spouting more and more English lately, thanks to Dora. She wanders around the house saying, “Hi! I’m Dora. Do you I like stickers? Good! I like stickers, too!” and regularly calls me ‘mommy,’ except for when she is really distressed, in which case I’m still äiti. I’ve actually started wondering if I should stop letting her watch Dora, since it’s having such an influence on her language and is skewing things so much toward it. Since English is our community language, it has a clear advantage as far as usefulness is concerned. DH and I have to artificially inflate the importance of Finnish and German so that they keep speaking it to us and that English creep doesn’t eventually win out.
Then I realized that cutting out Dora would be entirely pointless. With Alpha, I probably would have cut it out. But in the intervening time, I think I’ve come to accept that there is absolutely no way we can effectively control the language balance in our lives. We can influence it in some ways, but completely control it? No.
1) English will win–no matter where you live. It’s a major global language. No matter where you’re growing up, you will need to know English. Even North Korea teaches it. My kids are obviously going to figure that out eventually. If English is one of your bilingual languages, eventually it will pull out ahead. That’s just the way things are.
2) Kids develop their own preferences for languages. Right now, Alpha prefers German because he has the highest likelihood of being understood when he speaks it. Beta moves between all of them fairly easily at the moment, but I’m betting that will change as she gets older. Many older multilingual kids refuse to speak their second language unless they have to.
3) Bilingual children have periods where they refuse to speak a language. My husband grew up speaking Swedish as his mother tongue and Finnish as his father and community tongue. In spite of the fact he and his siblings went to a Swedish speaking school, they still figured out Finnish was the important language to speak and stopped speaking Swedish to their mother and told her they didn’t want to speak it anymore. So she stopped speaking Swedish to them. DH really regrets doing this now and insists he will always speak to his kids in Finnish no matter what they say. But this seems to be a normal story for bilingual children. It’s a normal phase of growing up.
4) Multilingualism is a start, not an end. Humans’ ability to retain languages is dependent on their ability to continue using it. No matter how much effort you put into their multilingualism at a young age, it’s the rest of their lives that will determine if they maintain it. Again, my husband’s Swedish is a perfect example of this. Since moving to the US, he has almost completely stopped speaking Swedish. He still reads it quite a bit and speaks the weird Swedish-Finnish combination used by his family, but practically no pure Swedish. When we went to Stockholm in December, his Swedish was so rusty, it was quicker for me to figure out what they were saying to him in Swedish and and answer in English than for him to answer in Swedish. In the end, both he and the Swedes just ended up speaking English because it was faster. He’s still trilingual, but he needs some WD-40 to get out the squeaks. My kids may be trilingual now, but whether or not they can still speak their languages well at 30 is firmly out of my control.
So I’ve given up worrying about keeping all of the languages in balance. They more or less are. We read an English book and a German book before naptime and DH reads a Finnish book before bed. We usually watch an English show (Dora) after naptime, then Sandmännchen (German) and Palomies Sami (Finnish, Fireman Sam) before bedtime. There is a sort of balance and it seems to be working. Tweaking it at the moment probably wouldn’t bring much improvement.