As a linguistic role model for children, parents not only teach kids a language, but their view of the world

Whoever reflects on their relationship with their child, thinks twice about things. And like a mirror, parents often see themselves reflected in their children. They recognize gestures, expressions, and intonation. You don’t have to be a psychologist to know that we as parents are role models for our children, and they pick up what they experience with us daily.

This is also the case for linguistic development. Children orient themselves towards the idiosyncrasies and practices of their parents.

Word-for-Word

Mom and dad are the first and from the beginning the most important linguistic role models. Kids hang on to every word and listen to trusted voices which are so familiar. This is how they develop their language piece by piece. In some cases, when there are two or even three languages involved, they develop this simultaneously. This creates a wealth of opportunities for the child and the parents.

Especially in the time before children start speaking, parents intuitively adjust their speaking style to the needs of their child. You chat differently with a baby than with their older siblings or school-aged children. A baby reacts to a high voice with attentiveness, and calms down when hearing a monotone and quiet voice.

With small children, we emphasize a lot, repeat and put the important information at the end of a sentence. This all happens intuitively, evolution has taken care of that.

Children teaching us

When we are talking about the language we use with children – the content, the vocabulary – nature leaves us well alone to find the “right” way. During a conversation with my daughter, I realized again how carefully children pay attention to the way we speak with them. When I speak with her in German, I take extra care to include all genders. For example, I say “Deine Freundinnen und Freunde” the masculine and feminine form, and not just “Freunde” –the masculine form which generally is accepted to indicate all friends, no matter their gender.

Or I speak of “partners” in the feminine form, when no men are present. Language creates reality, and it is important for me to strengthen the sense of the female, also through my language. In English, the same effect can be created by using “she” or “her” when describing a hypothetical, him or her.

In contrast, in Bulgarian, gendering is less common. One day I said to my daughter, “the teachers in your kindergarten…” I was using the general masculine form to indicate all the teachers, and she looked at me skeptically. At first I thought she didn’t understand the word, but then she corrected me. “You mean teachers (feminine) Mommy, they are all women.” And I was thankful to learn from my daughter that I must be more careful.

Varied vocabulary

With our language, we create the way that our children perceive the world, and give them the tools to process their perceptions, and to shape them. Especially bilingual children have a plethora of tools at their disposal, which they can transfer from one language to another. What is so amazing that it happens unconsciously and effortlessly.

When we pay attention to our vocabulary, we open new windows for our children into this world. And to talk with them means showing a sincere interest in your words and phrases, to ask questions, listen honestly, and hang on to their every word, just like they did with us when they were babies. The language we use with our children will become their language, and the more attention we pay to it, the better we can support their language acquisition. Kids want to be in a dialogue with us.

What can I do?

Parents frequently ask me what they can do so that their child will develop two languages, so that he or she isn’t confused and doesn’t reject either language. My advice: start with yourself. Pay attention to your language, communicate thoughtfully, and be aware of what language habits you are modeling for your child. If you listen to your child when they are talking, you will discover exactly how they are learning to speak.

Originally published in German on Standard.at on January 24, 2017

Zwetelina Ortega offers workshops and individual consulting in English and German for parents of multilingual children. Her next workshop in English is:

I am educating my child in a multilingual way (in English)

Saturday, April 22, 2017, 10.00 a.m. – 2.00 p.m.

LIMU Café – Information and exchange of experiences for parents of bilingual and multilingual children (in English)

Wednesday, March 15,2017, 6.30 p.m. – 8.30 p.m.

Topic: Motivating your child for his or her weaker language