Last week a reader asked me how I have gone about raising my kids as bilingual. I thought that others might also be interested in this, so I’m responding by way of this blog post.
Some background is in order, I guess. I was born and grew up in Estonia. In 1992, when I was 15, I moved to Sweden. Then in 2001 I moved to the UK with my partner Eric. We stayed there until 2008, at which time we returned to Sweden.
I am by now fluent (but not perfect) in all three languages – Estonian, English and Swedish. I think in all three languages, depending on the situation and the topic. But at a very deep level, Estonian is still my only native tongue. There are some things that can only be said in Estonian. While I could, technically, say to my kids that I love them in Swedish, it would remain bare words. It is only real if I say it in Estonian.
I want my kids to learn both Swedish and Estonian. (English is good, too, of course, but I believe that as long as they get two languages early on, picking up a third one and others thereafter will be much easier.)
My goal is quite practical and unambitious. I want them to have enough Estonian that when we are in Estonia, or in the company of my Estonian friends or relatives, the kids will understand what is going on around them, and be able to make themselves understood when needed. I don’t mind if they have a strong Swedish accent, or get the grammar all wrong. As a secondary goal, I want them to have a foundation in Estonian so that if they at some point decide to learn more, they won’t have to start from scratch.
Really the most important thing I do is the most basic one: I speak only Estonian to my kids. From the very first days I have only spoken Estonian to both Ingrid and Adrian. Anything else would feel artificial. I guess I could train myself to use some other language but I can’t see why I would want to.
I do this not only at home when we’re on our own, but also when there are others around, whether or not they speak Estonian. Almost all are understanding about this and don’t mind; for the very few who do mind and feel left out, I translate. I do use Swedish when I’m adressing everybody, e.g. when I’m talking to Ingrid and her friends.
I try to make sure that they have fun in Estonian: I read books, tell fairy tales, play games and sing songs. Every time we go to Estonia, we stock up on Estonian-language books and movies. When Ingrid asks me to read, I almost always pick an Estonian book.
When I don’t have enough material – when I can’t think of any more Estonian songs, or run out of fun Estonian books, I make up my own. I have my own translations of some of the most common children’s songs: Baa baa white sheep, Twinkle twinkle little star, Björnen sover etc.
When they want me to read a Swedish book for them, I read/retell it in Estonian instead – simultaneous interpretation. The first time with a new book might be a bit of a struggle, but by the third reading my Estonian retelling is as fluent as if I was reading. It just takes a bit of practice. (I usually don’t do this with Ingrid any more because she often reads along with me.)
I make sure that they hear a variety of Estonian. I expose them to other people speaking Estonian. We’ve been going to Estonian playgroup every other Sunday for several years. I encourage my mom to speak Estonian to Ingrid. (She doesn’t think it’s quite as important as I do and keeps switching into Swedish, but I keep reminding her.) We go to Estonia for about two weeks every summer for a thorough language immersion. I always notice a significant step up in Ingrid’s command of Estonian, and her willingness to speak Estonian, after each trip.
I also plan to find an Estonian babysitter at some point (= when Adrian is old enough to be left with a sitter). Ideally I’d like to find someone newly arrived from Estonia, who cannot even understand much Swedish, so that the kids would not be able to fall back to Swedish.
I used to prompt Ingrid to speak Estonian when she used Swedish when speaking to me. When she replied in Swedish or mixed in a Swedish word in an otherwise Estonian sentence, I’d ask her, “what’s that in Estonian?” and help her with the parts she couldn’t say in Estonian. But after a while that became too much of an uphill struggle, so I abandoned this. It is more important that Ingrid can speak freely to me, thinking about what she wants to say rather than how to say it.
Now I’m thinking of starting this up again but less ambitiously. Perhaps during dinner once a week, or fifteen minutes every evening, or something like that.
Things I don’t do. Send the kids to Estonian nursery or school – it would be too impractical for us, and I don’t value better Estonian skills highly enough to orient all our lives around this.
I also don’t force them to speak Estonian.