Raising multilingual children in the UAE

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If you are an expat parent reading this in the UAE, chances are that you are raising your kids in a multilingual environment.

This is certainly true for my family where we are exposing our children to a mix of 4 different languages every day. Raising multilingual kids is definitely one of the hardest parenting challenges we face; there are constant ups and downs and a stream of rebellion, set-backs and days where we just feel like giving up!

Based on our experiences, I would like to share my learnings along this journey, along with some more practical tips, strategies and resources on how to raise multilingual children in the UAE.

Our Linguistic Background:

But first a bit of background on our multilingual family: I am a native bilingual speaker of Urdu and English having grown up in Pakistan and the United States. My husband is a native bilingual speaker of German and Italian, having grown up in Germany with a German mother and Italian father. Together, we are raising our kids around the world as expats, first in Singapore and now in Dubai.

We follow the One Parent, One Language (OPOL) rule; I speak to the kids in Urdu and my husband speaks to the kids in German. Given the success of the OPOL method, we both have chosen to stick to this method of language learning, although it has its pros and cons.  Outside the home, our daughter has been used to speaking Chinese and English initially, when we lived in Singapore. She spoke many words in Chinese until the age of 2.5 years old and could sing proper nursery rhymes in Chinese too. Since moving to Dubai however, her languages at school are Arabic and English. Her knowledge of Arabic already is impressive, she knows many words, songs and can count easily in Arabic too.

Therefore, with our kids we speak Urdu and German at home, predominantly English with one another, and the kids speak and learn English and Arabic in school. The kids are also exposed to Italian from our Italian family so we hope they will have a passive knowledge of Italian and perhaps pursue it academically in later years.

Based on our experiences and research, here are some of my top tips on raising multilingual children:

  1. Clearly define your Language system: Decide on which language (s) you will speak to your children and devise which framework is best given your particular situation. Some of the most common methodologies are to follow OPOL (one parent, one language), minority language at home, and majority language outside (for example Spanish at home, English outside, if you live in the United States for example). Each language model could have its pros and cons, so you need to figure out which will work best for your particular family and the number of languages you are looking to pass on.

 

  1. Clearly define your language goals: do you want your child to demonstrate an active knowledge (be able to speak and respond in a certain language) or passive knowledge (be limited to understanding a language but not speak actively in it)? For instance, I would like my children to be able to speak and talk confidently in Urdu, therefore it is not only enough that my daughter understands what I am saying in Urdu but also that she answers me back in Urdu. The latter is the tougher part for sure but I make it clear to her that she needs to talk to me in Urdu. I reinforce it by acting disengaged if she reverts to speaking to me in English and as soon as she speaks in Urdu, I am all ears, give her my full attention and respond eagerly to what she’s saying!
    My personal language goals for her are that she can understand and speak in Urdu, but I am not prioritizing her written skills in Urdu, since I feel it not as important at this point in time.

 

  1. Talk to other bilingual and multilingual families and compare strategies: Find out what works best for them. You will pick up valuable insights from hearing other people’s experiences. There are many online groups you can also join, my favourites are “Raising Bilingual/Multilingual Children” and “Multilingual Parenting” on Facebook where different challenges are discussed by members and solutions or advice is sought on obstacles faced while raising bilingual or multilingual children. It really helps to hear from other parents what tactics have worked and to compare strategies. Often you will receive new ideas and inspiration on how to increase your child’s access to the minority language etc.

 

  1. Enlist support from family and friends: Don’t underestimate the support from family and friends in this process. Grandparents especially can play a key role in speaking their native language to your children. We aim for frequent visits to our home countries and encourage lots of time with grandparents to visit us here in Dubai too. On our recent trip to Germany an amazing thing happened. After a week with family and friends there, my daughter came to me and said thoughtfully one day “Mama, everyone here speaks like Papa”. It took me a minute to realize what she meant; she was referring to her observation that everyone in Germany was speaking German, just like her Papa. This was a wonderful discovery for her and she was mighty pleased at being able to understand what friends and family were saying to her.

 

  1. Prioritize family time: Simple things like having dinner together as a family at the table can help a lot in reinforcing languages. We practise this a lot and our children get used to asking for more cucumber at the dining table in German with their Dad and in Urdu with their mom. They get better at code switching and knowing exactly which language to speak to whom at the dining table. Also reading in your native language while doing the bedtime routine is another great way to have some one-on-one time in your native language and increase your child’s exposure to that language.

 

  1. Consistency vs Practicality: It’s very important to stay consistent in speaking one language, but as I have learned certain social situations, call for practicality over consistency. When my daughter’s friend came over for her birthday party and gave her a birthday gift, I turned to her and said in English “Say thank you for your lovely present!” Had I said this in Urdu to my child, of course she would’ve understood but the other child and the parent of this child would not, so as part of social etiquette, it is necessary to speak the majority language sometimes, such as in this scenario. I thought this would confuse my child, but as it turns out, she can now read social cues pretty well and knows exactly who to speak with in which language and when.

 

  1. Mixing two or more Languages: The first time my daughter mixed Urdu and German (a funny combination indeed!), I got extremely worried. I worried if we were confusing her. As it turns out, we were not. It’s perfectly normal for a child to mix two or even more languages they are learning. It doesn’t mean they are getting confused, it just means they are slowly building up their vocabulary and they might pick and choose words that they know in one language and use them while communicating in another.

 

  1. Kids Choose the Path of Least Resistance: Be prepared for it and have a strategy for dealing with it, together with your spouse. It’s natural for kids to choose the path of least resistance, but as parents, it’s equally important to be firm and stand your ground. We faced a huge surge in rebellion once our daughter turned 3 and realized “wait a minute, Mama and Papa you both speak English, so why can’t I speak English with you?” My husband’s response: “Either you speak German with me, or you don’t speak with me at all.” This may sound harsh, but there is no room for negotiation on this one. He further explained to her that he comes from Germany, so he speaks German and he would like her to speak in German with him. She now goes around telling her classmates proudly at school “My Papa is German, and we speak German together.”

 

  1. What works with 1 child, might not work with the other: Each child is different, you may need to adjust your expectations and re-think strategy. Another tactic is to re-adjust the framework, for example if your younger child is struggling with one of the languages, then perhaps you ask the older child to start speaking only in that language to the younger sibling.

 

  1. Perseverance, Perseverance, Perseverance: You will be tempted to give up so many times, maybe even several times in one day. There will be rebellions, confusion, and set-backs, but it’s important to take it all with a bit of humour and follow through. It might take a while but perseverance will pay off.

I hope these tips prove helpful if you are planning on or already raising bilingual or multilingual children. I would like to add that we have been fortunate to be able to send our daughter to a multilingual kindergarden as well in Dubai, where she has the opportunity to learn in different languages and where teachers and staff are not only trained to teaching kids from multilingual backgrounds, but also view it as an asset. This has also been an incredible source of knowledge and support for us in our journey as multilingual parents, here in the UAE. (For more information you can check out The Children’s Garden Nursery, which has branches all over Dubai).

Are you raising bilingual or multilingual kids? I would love to hear what works for you and your family! Feel free to leave me a comment below.

About the Author:

 Mariam Ottimofiore

Mariam is an eternal expat who 15 years, 7 countries and 3 continents later, is embarrassingly a seasoned expert at getting lost in every new city she calls home, and butchering words in every new foreign language she picks up along the way. She currently lives in Dubai with her family and writes mostly about life as an expat, trying to raise her multilingual and multicultural children in her East-meets-West marriage and of course traveling the world. 


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