Polylingual parenting—a tale of two cities (by Dr. Mela Sarkar)

Watching one’s grandchildren grow up is the ultimate payback for all the demands of parenting. One has the privilege of being close to the extraordinary and unrepeatable phenomenon of childhood without having to shoulder all the responsibility. But, like parenting, grandparenting is turning out to be full of surprises. Thus far it’s been a kinder, gentler learning curve—so much of what comes along is a spruced-up 21st-century version of what I remember living through thirty or so years ago—but any learning curve is going to lead to unexpected vantage points.

Take language, for instance, as readers of this blog are bound to be inclined to do. When we BILD members wrote our “About” pages three years ago, I ended my blurb with a reference to my grandchildren (“three at last count”) and the confident statement that they would “be multi- and plurilingual, or I would know the reason why.” None of them were talking much then, although the then two-year-old (she’s now five) was certainly beginning to try to take over conversations in three languages, as I had occasion to mention here a couple of years ago.

A small great-niece has joined the throng since then here in Montreal—we are, heartwarmingly, a variety of grandmother and granddaughter in the Bengali kinship system she and I belong to. Another granddaughter is expected in Toronto in May. The family is bursting with young ones, and the young ones are bursting with language. It’s all tremendously exciting and it’s all good.

However, it’s not necessarily all multi- and plurilingual in quite the way the parents and grandparents had imagined. That’s been an important part of this learning curve for me. Whether or not a given child’s emerging language falls neatly, in equal parts, into boxes marked (in the case of our family) French, English, Spanish, Hindi, or Bengali depends on so many factors that one can’t easily foresee, much less control, during the first couple of years of getting the small new people on their feet, literally, and heading them out into the huge world of interaction with others.

In the several households where my four-soon-to-be-five grandchildren live, the ways of talking that the children are constructing for themselves—their polylingual languaging, to borrow the useful and apposite phrase coined by Normann Jørgensen (2008)—depends, certainly, on what they hear from their parents. But it also depends a lot on what happens in their daycares (BILD members Alison Crump and Catherine Levasseur have written about this). And on the conversations that happen inside and outside the children’s homes with friends and relatives, on the children’s programming they watch, on a thousand and one influences from the outside world (Alison and Catherine have written about this too). When young children go out into that outside world, they are quick to absorb the messages about language that are powerfully, unconsciously being passed along.

From this grandmother’s perspective, it seems that the children’s decisions about how to “language” has a lot to do with the kind of language-interactional spaces available to their parents. Here in Montreal, arranging for spaces to be uncompromisingly French or almost completely English is easy. It takes little or no work to make sure that children are mostly in spaces where the expectation is, very powerfully, in the direction of one or the other of Canada’s official languages being spoken by everybody present. Daycare is an exclusively French space, for two of the grandchildren and the great-niece, and in that space I have never heard them transgress—they have been quick to pick up the societal message in post-Bill-101 Quebec that French is the langue publique commune. Home is, variously, mostly English or mostly Spanish; in those spaces the children are remarkably consistent about (mostly) going along with the parental diktat. I have the utmost admiration and respect for the young Spanish-speaking parents in our two young Montreal families; it’s not nearly as easy to maintain a Spanish space for children here in Canada, even in large urban centres with plenty of other Hispanophone families around. But my son-in-law and my niece-in-law are managing to do it.

In Toronto, where the third young family now lives, the one-parent-one-language policy has not been as easy to put into practice, for very practical reasons. Toronto is a city of immigrants where everything converges toward English. In many, many homes a language other than English is the preferred language, but those tend to be homes where both parents (as well as other members of the extended family) are from the same cultural and linguistic background.

If, however, the parents come from very different backgrounds—in this case, a French/English parent from Montreal and a Punjabi/Hindi/English parent from India via Vancouver—it’s much more difficult to set up those French-only or Hindi-only interactional spaces. English is the default language, the language the parents met and built up their relationship in, and it becomes the language of the home.

This was certainly the case for my own parents, raising three children in English in downtown Toronto in the 1960s—they had met as graduate students, with English as their common language. Given the bilingualism-as-deficit climate of the times, I don’t suppose it ever occurred to them to try to each speak their own first language to us exclusively. Bengali and Ukrainian are the lost languages of my childhood.

Thirty years on, the climate has changed to the extent that attempting to bring up children in three languages is no longer certain to bring down the opprobrium of schools and society. But it remains challenging in an overwhelmingly monolingual environment. Despite the fact that my three-year-old grandson has been hearing Hindi and French from his parents since he was born (as well as English of course!), he is much less motivated to create an independent Hindi or French way of languaging for himself than his Montreal cousins are to “language” freely, uncompelled, in French or Spanish. It’s just too tricky in Toronto for his parents to set up “Hindi here” or “French here” spaces that include other people besides the parent, especially other CHILDREN, to interact with—which seems, from my grandmaternal vantage point, to be the key ingredient. The Toronto parents, understandably, care about the message content of their communication more than the medium. They make sure he continues to hear and to understand his other two languages. Speaking is another matter.


So the ways in which all the grandchildren “will be multi- and plurilingual” are going to be different, and interesting. But I am no longer so confident that I will “know the reasons why!” The new generation is setting out on new paths that will take them in directions my generation will undoubtedly not be able to imagine. Who knows what other languages they will bring into the family, and why? Among the multitude of other learning curve balls they are going to throw at their elders?

And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.



Jørgensen, J. N. (2008). Polylingual languaging around and among children and adolescents. International Journal of Multilingualism, 5(3), 161-176.






One thought on “Polylingual parenting—a tale of two cities (by Dr. Mela Sarkar)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *