I’m often asked how I managed to learn so many languages and how I keep them apart. Well I must say a big part of my abilities come from my mother’s motivation during my childhood. She was a busy woman, but very strong in her belief that she was giving me an enormous gift, that today, I can thank her for from all my heart.
I decided to write this to encourage mothers not to be afraid to speak several languages to their children, if they are bi-or multilingual and wish their kids to become part of a true multicultural world. I realized very early that having several cultures and languages is enriching. There is nothing better in life than understanding other cultures from the inside, including their sense of humor and their way of thinking. The more languages you speak the more you are able to find yourself in the right place and situation.
My multicultural experience started when I was 3 years old. Another language and culture entered my life. Thanks to my mom I kept up my first language. I spoke both languages at the same time, adding on the new one like a parallel world on the top. My brain got more and more flexible and I learned how to separate them. The third language followed when I was 10, just learning it at home. Actually that kind of passive learning was not bad either. I only realized it later when all the vocabulary I acquired was stored in my brain, and when I needed to speak it four years later, it seemed to flow out of nowhere. I started learning the 4th language at 15 years of age, the 5th at 20, the 6th at 23, the 7th and 8th at around 30, and today I’m learning my 9th one.
When my brother was born, 20 years ago I decided to help my mom with the difficult task of raising a bilingual child, understanding that with age one gets less motivated for all the extras about child upbringing. I wasn’t there all the time for him but my mom came up with other tricks to keep her language alive.
My own personal experiences strongly influenced my multicultural mothering choices from the moment my daughter was born. So when it was her turn I knew what to do but I had to choose between the languages I knew and chose to limit myself to 3. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I was prepared. I was lucky because we had the chance to move from France to Sweden before my daughter turned 2. At kindergarten she was immersed in one language, her father spoke a second and I kept up the third. She hardly spoke before the age of 3, but when she did she had a lot to say in all three languages simultaneously. I was optimistic and believed that the order and structure of each would come in due time.
Things became a bit more complicated when we moved to China four and a half years later. Two more languages were added: English and Chinese. The latter was added by a “storm” as it was a phenomenon moving from a Swedish to a Chinese kindergarten. A year later, English was smoothed in at an international school, even though she was part of the French section.
Today my daughter speaks five languages, not all very well, but I make sure I keep them up to a certain level. She will work out which she wants to continue with later, on her own. The most important job has been done though and I’m sure that one comes out of such experiences only stronger, not weaker as some people tended to think in the 70’s.
We live in a new era, in which we need to communicate with and understand each other more deeply to keep this world peaceful and to preserve the planet. That will be the task for the multilinguals we are educating today.
Svetlana Furman is a contributing author at Multicultural Mothering. She is an independent business consultant living between Paris and Stockholm, where she just moved back to, after spending over 3.5 years in China.
Her 9 year old daughter is attending the Lycee Francais of Stockholm.