Maximize Your Child's Bilingual Ability

Recommended Resources: “Be Bilingual” by Annika Bourgogne

February 8, 2013

Writing about raising children to be bilingual isn’t easy. The scope of the subject is so broad and encompasses so many facets—theory, research, practical ideas, resources—that no book (or blog, for that matter) could possibly cover the whole sprawling field. Moreover, every family is different, with its own unique mix of languages, circumstances, goals, and needs, so information that may be relevant to one family won’t necessarily be relevant to another.

Be BilingualOver the years I’ve read widely about bilingual children—and every book has proven useful to me in one way or another—but a new book by Annika Bourgogne, entitled Be Bilingual: Practical Ideas for Multilingual Families, embraces the subject with more global reach than any I’ve come across before.

Be Bilingual is a friendly, readable book that provides an intelligent and insightful blend of research-based advice and practical, real-world ideas. With a wealth of information on the subject of raising bilingual children—including tips from experienced parents and a range of links to helpful online resources—the book will no doubt be of benefit to families everywhere.

Along with sound guidance on planning and pursuing the bilingual quest, Annika, a teacher and parent of multilingual children in Finland, offers information on certain aspects of the subject that I haven’t seen elsewhere, such as advice pertinent to international adoption and single parents. Another good example of the book’s practical and thorough approach is the section on international travel, where the author not only discusses the value of trips to countries where the minority language is used more widely, but provides useful suggestions on saving money for this purpose.

In her introduction, Annika calls Be Bilingual an “ideabook”—“a book that is written by one parent for other parents trying to make sense of what the experts say and making it actually work in practice.” In my view, she has succeeded admirably at this aim and I recommend her book highly for parents seeking to raise their children to “be bilingual.”

Be Bilingual: Practical Ideas for Multilingual Families is available as an eBook or paperback at amazon. (For the e-version, a Kindle device isn’t needed to access the book. It can be read on computers, tablets, and smartphones, too, by simply installing one of amazon’s Free Reading Apps for Kindle books.)

Interview with Annika Bourgogne, author of Be Bilingual

Annika kindly agreed to share her thoughts, by email, on the origins of Be Bilingual and her efforts to raise two daughters in Finnish and French.

Annika BourgogneCould you share a bit of your background?
I’ve always been passionate about languages and communicating with people from other parts of the world. I spent a year in the U.S. when I was in high school and another year in France as an au pair. I have a master’s degree in French and English from the University of Helsinki, and I teach both as foreign languages at a Finnish school (my students are between the ages of 9 and 15). At university I met my future husband, Gilles, who had come from France on an exchange program for a year. He ended up staying a bit longer (18 years and counting). I wanted to write my master’s thesis on something useful and chose bilingualism. I was interested in it partly because I had grown up in a bilingual home without becoming one myself, and also because I wanted to learn what was necessary to ensure that our children would become active bilinguals. Today we have two daughters, 7 and 12, who are happy and active bilingual children.

Why did you decide to write Be Bilingual?
About a year ago a family member asked me for advice on raising bilingual children. I talked his ears off and while I wish I hadn’t (he never mentioned the subject again), I realized how passionate I was about the subject and how much I had learned about it over the years. Since writing my thesis I had read books and articles about bilingualism continuously, thinking that I’d pursue a Ph.D one day. I now realized, however, that I was more interested in practical, daily solutions and new ways to combine real-life parenting with the latest research on the subject. This was what I had been focusing on since our oldest daughter, Emma, was born and I wanted to write the book that I personally would have wanted to read during the process of making multilingualism work in daily life. It took me a year to research and write, alongside my teaching job and being a mom, but it was one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done.

What would be your best advice for supporting a child’s bilingual development?
If the goal is for the children to be active in both languages, my top tip is to reinforce the language that is not present in the environment! In our family, for instance, our priority (as far as bilingualism is concerned) is to make sure that our children need and want to use French. We put effort into making it fun, useful and natural for them.

What would be your best advice for supporting, more specifically, a child’s biliteracy?
Talking and reading to children (a lot) in both languages, from when they’re small, is a great way to pave the way for biliteracy. I’m a big fan of keeping things fun when first learning to read and have looked for things children are naturally motivated to read, like a joke in a candy wrapper, the recipe for their favorite food, or a birthday party invitation. I also make sure there are lots of different books in the house in both languages to arouse their curiosity to read.

Which of your strategies and routines have had the greatest impact on your own children’s language development?
First and foremost, the efforts that their dad makes on a daily basis to speak French to them and share his culture with them. In addition to this, spending time with the grandparents in France has definitely had a great impact. Between visits, we have made good use of Skype to stay in touch with them. Reading daily in both languages (with an emphasis on French) has made a big difference in the size of their vocabulary.

What frustrations have you experienced along the way? How have you addressed these frustrations?
As our children grow, more and more of their lives are lived in Finnish. Their friends speak Finnish, hobbies and activities are in Finnish—and their French-speaking dad travels a lot for work! We’ve needed to look for solutions to make sure they continue to feel the need to use French. These have included having a French-speaking au pair for a while, connecting with other families that speak the language, and a wide range of electronics and non-electronics. My husband’s parents are our best allies: every summer they welcome our daughters for many weeks of authentic language immersion. Speaking the language with monolingual family members and new friends in the village is as big a motivation as you can find.

What do you feel is something every parent should know about raising bilingual children?
There are times when it’s a lot of work for parents, but living in two languages and cultures as a family makes life so much more interesting and rewarding.

What resources—books, games, websites, etc.—have been most helpful to your efforts?
As a parent, I’ve loved the support of websites and blogs dedicated to multilingualism, such as Multilingual Living. Bilingual Monkeys is very fast becoming a new favorite of mine, too! For our children we’ve used all possible resources, and have found most helpful the ones that require interaction with others, such as books, board games and singing along to a CD in the car.

What last piece of advice could you offer to other parents raising bilingual kids?
Make it a priority, but not a source of stress in your life. Plan and form some habits that fit into your family’s busy life and enjoy your family’s bilingual journey!

How about you? Have you read Be Bilingual? What other books on raising bilingual children would you recommend?

1 Monika Staubli June 22, 2017 at 7:33 pm

Dear Annika,

It has always been clear to my husband Jean-Marie and me that we want to raise our children bilingually (my husband is French speaking Swiss and I’m Polish); now when our son Oliver was born (he’s 2.5 months old), I started to really deep dive into the topic of multilingualism.

I got myself a few books and I find yours particularly good—being a good combination of tips& tricks and scientific research, it is a good option for busy parents who need a short recap and practical advice.

Having read your book, I really got inspired and motivated to enhance Oliver’s linguistic skills even more. However, I’ve had a few points to which I still have questions and thought I will drop you a line.

We live in a very multilingual environment (Switzerland, Zurich). My husband is a French speaking Swiss, I am Polish and we live in the German-speaking part of Switzerland (please bear in mind that Swiss German, being “only” a dialect of German, sounds completely different and many German native speakers have problems with understanding it for a couple of months+each German speaking canton has its proper dialect). Despite the challenges, we are both committed to Oliver’s multilingual development. We have already instinctively started with the OPOL approach, and before having found this tip in your book, I instinctively hired a Polish nanny, who will be staying with him for two days per week, as Polish is definitely a minority language.

The challenge is also that in our situation, both Polish and French are minority languages—as Oliver will know Swiss German from crèche, kindergarten, school, and from neighbours. We will try to find some Polish and French families to overcome this challenge.

I am, however, concerned by one thing: namely, the language we speak with each other, and this is why I decided to ask for your opinion.

We used to speak with each other German (not being a mother tongue of either of us), but when I moved to Switzerland (at the beginning we lived in the French speaking part), I insisted that we switch into French so that I can learn (in combination with a high exposure to the language). Now, although I make many mistakes, we speak French.

Meanwhile, J-M has taught himself Polish from different books, to the level of a simple conversation (I would say around B1). As there is very little exposure or Polish in Switzerland and veeery few classes in language schools (at the moment the only class there no longer exists), it is difficult. We sometimes practice Polish together.

Knowing that it would be the best way for Oliver to become fluent in both languages, we started to endeavour speaking “me Polish” and “he French” to each other.  Sometimes; however, JM doesn’t not understand everything or complex topics and then I translate, or switch into French, especially if I want to communicate quicker and more efficiently.

And now come questions: Will Oliver not be confused when I sometimes use French, given that it is not related to a specific situation/is not really consistent as I switch into French to make communication with my husband easier/quicker/more efficient and not in a given situation? How can we both practice our languages—me French and JM Polish if we should rather use our mother tongues next to Oliver? (I know that finding tandem partners would be ideal but with both jobs and the baby + both languages being minority languages it’s difficult…) Will Oliver sometimes not start using French when speaking to me since he will notice that I understand it (well, I could always say that I understand it only when adults speak, as indicated in your book—that was a good one! 😉 but how long will he believe it??) What would you recommend us? Please bear in mind that I consequently speak to Oliver Polish and J-M French, so my only worry is about us speaking to each other…and our languages being both minority languages in the region…

What do you think about our set up and situation? What would you recommend?

I would be grateful for your reply and look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Best regards,

Monika

Reply

2 Adam June 23, 2017 at 8:13 am

Monika, as I’m not sure Annika will see your message here (this post is now several years old), I would suggest trying to contact her directly at her Facebook page.

About your situation, it sounds to me like you’re off to a good start on your multilingual journey. I understand that the circumstances, and multiple languages, make this challenging, but the main thing is continuing to do your best, day by day, to provide little Oliver with ample input in your two minority languages, Polish and French, during these early formative years.

Your concern about the use of languages between you and your husband is only natural, yet I don’t think this should be a large worry as the far greater impact on his language development will come from the input he receives directly from you, your husband, and others. Communicating with each other in your native languages will certainly fortify that direct input (my wife and I have taken a similar approach, speaking our native languages of English and Japanese), though if it isn’t realistic for you to do this 100% of the time, I think you need to give yourself that permission as I expect Oliver will still make good progress over the months and years ahead even if the communication between you and your husband can’t be fully controlled.

The truth is, the process of fostering multiple languages can be rather “messy” at times (see Nobody’s Perfect at Raising Bilingual Children), but it’s also true that perseverance pays off and rewards us with the success we seek.

I wish you all the best, Monika! And for ongoing support, you’re warmly invited to join me and hundreds of other parents of bilingual and multilingual children at my lively forum, The Bilingual Zoo.

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