Please tell us a bit about yourselves.
Ute: I’m German (and Swiss) but never lived in Germany, my parents’ country of origin. I grew up with multiple languages and always enjoyed learning about what they have in common and how they differ. I like talking (a lot) and reading (even more). I studied Romance Linguistics and Literature and worked as an Assistant Professor in the department of Italian Historical Linguistics at the University of Zurich. I have a PhD in French Philology and have always been passionate about languages, how they change over time and when they are in contact, either in the macro society or the micro society, the family.
After a few international moves, I left academia and found my passion in supporting other multilingual families, maintaining their languages, and adding more to their list. As an independent language consultant at Ute’s International Lounge, I share my knowledge, insights, and experience in consultations, workshops, and courses for parents, educators, and health practitioners. In addition to teaching historical linguistics to university students, I have taught German, Italian, and French to teenagers and adult advanced learners for more than 30 years. I’m fascinated to observe the many ways we acquire and learn languages. International, multilingual and multicultural settings are where I feel “at home,” as do my three teenage children who have grown up with German, Swiss German, Dutch, English, Italian, French, and Spanish, which they have mastered to different levels of fluency.
Ana: I was born and raised in a small town in Brazil. Nobody around me spoke another language or traveled abroad, but I decided I wanted to learn English. I don’t remember why and how that happened, what I remember, though, is that since I started to learn, a curiosity about places and people far away grew inside me. I lived in the USA as an au pair for a little while, and now I call Belgium my home. In our family we speak Portuguese, Dutch, English, and sometimes a little French. I’ve been a teacher for almost half of my life. I teach English as an Additional Language and for the past six years I’ve been working as a learning support teacher at an international school. I love the multicultural environment I’m immersed in every day, as I get to learn about dozens of countries and share a bit about mine. Working with children from all over the world, helping them learn not only to speak a new language, but to read and write, sparked an obsession with how the brain learns to read, especially in different languages.
What is the book about and why did you decide to create it?
Ute: The book is aimed at parents who are raising their children with multiple languages and want to find ways to foster the languages in a fun way. Ana and I are both passionate about supporting multilingual families by providing ideas on how to make using languages engaging for all family members. We both were missing a guide or a toolbox that provides ideas and games for parents like us.
Teachers know how to structure activities in the classroom, but what about parents at home? Not all parents want to (or can) wear a teacher’s hat, and they shouldn’t feel guilty about it. One doesn’t need to be a language teacher or a linguist to transmit a language to a child. When raising children with multiple languages, we parents realize our own limitations. We don’t remember certain nursery rhymes or word games we used to play. So Ana and I decided to gather all the activities and games we enjoy in our Toolbox. We chose this name as it should be used this way, like a toolbox where you can look for the right tool to foster, adjust, and complete a language skill in an effective and fun way.
The target group for our book being multilingual families, we imagined that they are probably living abroad, like us, with not much support in their target languages, and in need of easy to implement activities that don’t require much time and that can be remembered without having to look them up in the book when out and about. I personally also thought about families with three or more children – like mine – that could be interested in activities that can be done with children of different ages and with various levels of fluency.
Tell us about the process of creating it. How did you work together on the book as co-authors?
Ute: The process started during online conversations Ana and I had about raising children with multiple languages.
In the initial phase we gathered all kinds of activities and games we liked, and categorized them by age, language fluency, time and skills required. We then narrowed them down to those that require little or no time to prepare, and that can be understood by reading the description only.
We purposefully chose activities and games that don’t require visuals as it would have meant for us to choose two or three languages to make examples, which didn’t seem fair. Nevertheless, we added some examples in our languages, as this is inevitable for this kind of book.
Ana: Working together was an enriching experience. Being able to pick each other’s brains and learn from each other inspired so many ideas!
The creation process was gradual: after fine-tuning the idea for the book (a collection of language activities, organized by skills) each of us started writing our part (Ute wrote the Understanding and Speaking part and Ana wrote the Reading and Writing part).
We then put the parts together on a shared document and revised (many times!) before sending the draft over to a group of beta readers, who provided valuable feedback.
It was important to find a pace that suited us both, since we have our jobs and families. Fortunately, we decided to self-publish and were both happy to take our time – no deadlines, no pressure.
We also needed to take a couple of months off from the project so that I could focus on another important job: becoming a mom!
What are some of your favorite activities found in the book?
Ana: As a teacher I particularly like the multisensory ways to practice writing. They are engaging, memorable, incredibly effective in learning spelling and they’re simple to set up. Children usually don’t expect to write on salt, gel, or to run around searching for sticky notes during a writing lesson. They’ll always ask for more!
As a (multilingual) mom, I’m fortunate to have The Toolbox at home, to be able to choose activities that will support my daughter’s language development from the very beginning! We’ve been talking, reading, singing, modeling, expanding…making sure she has the best exposure possible in her two home languages, but especially Portuguese which is our minority language.
Ute: Every time I try to answer this question, I choose different activities. I guess the reason for this is that we selected the activities and games that we personally enjoy.
I always find it inspiring and fun to play with sounds and words. Imitating a language through intonation and sound combinations allows us to experiment with new words, sentences and phrases in languages that we aren’t fluent in yet. As we speak multiple languages in our family we often experience that words have multiple meanings not only in one language but also across languages (activity 29). As misunderstandings tend to happen frequently when communicating across languages, I like focusing on effective communication whilst playing with the languages, not only their sounds, syntax, morphology, and meanings, but also the non-verbal communication. Every activity that involves several facets of language is what I find most fascinating.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about it?
Ute: In addition to the Toolbox we have created a workbook where parents can keep track of the activities and games they enjoy. We share prompts that guide parents on assembling their own collection of ideas that not only support their children’s language skills but create lovely memories. The whole family can work together, reflecting on the best ways to practice languages, and to stay focused and motivated.
As a multilingual parents, what would be your best advice for other parents with a bilingual or multilingual dream?
Ana: I’ve only been a parent for a little over a year, but one of the biggest lessons I’ve been learning is to avoid comparison. Don’t compare your child to others – they grow and develop at their own pace. Don’t compare yourself to other parents – do the best that you can. You will hear a lot of comments and read a lot of tips about raising multilingual children – do what works for your family, at this moment, and in these circumstances.
Ute: I second Ana in the first advice: to avoid comparing our children with other children. Even twins develop at their very own pace and in different ways.
I personally consider the multilingual upbringing of my children like an important project as it allows us to connect and communicate within our family, with our extended family, the community, and the broader societies we are in contact with. Like for every other project, one needs to set goals, agree on some fundamental aspects. This is why I like to quote Antoine de St Exupéry who said: “A goal without a plan is just a wish”.
When our long term goal is for our children to be able to speak all our family languages, we better agree on the little steps that lead towards it. First with the partner, and then also with the children. Defining little steps is important because it will help adjust our initial plans when unforeseen circumstances happen.
I always say that we need a “multilingual village to raise a multilingual child” (I adapt an African saying to the topic): we can’t do it all by ourselves. In order for our children (and us!) to stay motivated, and in order to provide a diverse language experience for our children (and ourselves!), we need a group of people who share and support our languages in a non-judgmental way.
Raising children with multiple languages seems simple at the beginning, but is not always easy. This is why we need people around us who support us, so that we can enjoy it all together.