¡Sí! No! Bien sûr! Raising a multilingual child as a single parent (by Catherine Levasseur)

I grew up as a monolingual French speaker somewhere on Montreal’s south shore. I learned some English at school, but always thought I had no talent for languages. I thought it might even jeopardize my undergraduate studies and future career as an anthropologist. Then, I had to learn Spanish to get a practicum gig in Cuba. I knew very little about Cuba and even less about Spanish. Uno, dos, tres, una cerveza por favor, gracías (esti). Not even sure it was that good. Then… I fell in love. Not only with Spanish, but with languages. That was in 1999. I was 22 years old.

Now, at 39, I enjoy and I am proud of my multilingual repertoire. I daily use French, Spanish and English. Thanks to my travel and work experiences, or just because it was fun, I have acquired along the way notions in many other languages: Portuguese, Greek, German, Quichua and Maya. And I only wish to keep it going. I put languages and multilingualism at the center of my Ph.D. research and I am strongly advocating for the acknowledgment of multilingualism in Francophone schools in Canada.

Now at 39, I am also a new single mom. I have a lovely baby who doesn’t speak yet, but she will. And since she has been a little seahorse swimming in my belly, I have been asking myself how, as a single parent, can I help her build a multilingual repertoire?

The model one parent/one language, so favoured amongst multilingual families and in research (http://termcoord.eu/2017/03/childs-bilingual-development-parental-transmission-strategies/), was not only impossible, but it did not suit me. I wanted to practice a multilingualism that has no strict language separations. I wanted languages to be fun and to be a source of discoveries, not frustrations.

I also wanted to avoid the model one (minority) language at home and one (dominant) language outside. I found it impractical for many reasons. First, I am more comfortable speaking French, which can be considered the dominant language in my experience of Montreal and because of my family and friends network. Second, what would be the minority language spoken at home? English? Spanish? Why and how should I chose? Also, the sociolinguistic context in which I hope to raise my daughter is much more complex than what the minority-dominant languages model proposes. I wanted her to be exposed to a diversity of languages that can be in turn dominant or minorized, depending on the circumstances. I surely don’t want to reinforce that dichotomy by my family language practices.

So, what option was left to me? The “chaos-yet authentic” model as I like to call it. I speak (and sing, and read…) to my daughter since pregnancy in any languages that I wish to at any given time. And often, I happily mix it. No rules, no boundaries. I try to expose her to languages through my own interactions with friends and family here in Montreal and on the road. As she will grow and learn, we will certainly adjust, but for now I decided to “wing it”. School will most likely present her a strict and normative language learning model. I will (hopefully) not.

But the “how” part always came with many “whys”. Why should I start so early? Why should I push languages and not, let’s say, sports? Why these languages more than others? Behind these questions lies another one: Was I doing it for her or for myself? I knew from my own experience and from research that adults can absolutely learn languages. It would never be too late for her to learn languages that she wanted when she would be ready. I also know that languages need to be meaningful to be learnt. Lastly, I know she might not have the time exposure or occasions to practice that would be necessary to develop her competence in my chosen languages. So, again, why?

I do consider that childhood is a good period to learn languages. Young children do not usually have prejudice against languages. As they are already in full learning mode, the additional languages just become part of their daily life. I also believe multilingualism is more often than not an asset in this time and world. Language skills come very handy when it comes to travel, learning, work, etc. So why not really? As I want her to learn to swim and to skate, I wish her to speak many languages. I don’t know if she will ever be a great swimmer nor do I know if she will ever speak Spanish, English or French, for that matter. I don’t know if she will learn Polish, Hindi or Mandarin. Or all of them. What I know is that in exposing my daughter to language diversity, and if she experiences it in a positive way at home from childhood, it can only be a good start in life. She will later decide which languages to adopt, to pursue, to value, to learn or to reject. She will build her own repertoire based on her needs and interests. But whatever she chooses, I will always be proud to have provided her with some tools and opportunities to be an effective and happy multilingual individual. And that makes me a happy new single multilingual mom.

Catherine Levasseur is a Ph.D. candidate in Sciences humaines appliquées at Université de Montréal.


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