What does it feel like to be a Bilingual Expat Child?
Have you ever wondered what your kids are going through as ex-patriot-children?
Join me as I share with you what it was like to grow up in Australia as a child of Polish expat parents. The process we went through to learn the language of our new-found home, immerse in a new culture and the struggles we went through as a family to make sure we didn't lose Polish - our family-language.
It was the year 1990. The Berlin Wall had fallen a year earlier, the Cold War was over. For the first time in decades the citizens of Poland were able to possess passports and to travel abroad. The free economy was booming. Gone were the days when the only thing available in stores was vodka and vinegar and tireless queuing for hours to buy toilet paper (only to discover there was none left when you finally got to the front of the line) was over too! A whole new era had arrived.
It was a time of opportunity and increasing abundance. The possibilities were limitless and my dad was facing a dilemma: to set up an import-export business and stay in a country that was lacking so many basic products from abroad (a perfect business opportunity!), or embrace the opportunity of discovering the unknown in a country further away than you can possibly imagine: Australia.
Working for the airline industry at the time, my dad was young, ambitious, incredibly driven and business savvy. He was selected by his company to head over to Oz and set up a flight-connection between Melbourne and Warsaw; to reconnect the Polish families that got split up after the War and during the communist times.
My parents knew that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity - they knew they had to take it.
We left Poland in the Winter of 1990 to arrive in Melbourne in the middle of a scorching hot Australian summer. I can still remember the jet lag my 2 year old sister and 4 year old self were experiencing: sleepless nights, when mum and dad would take us for midnight walks along the streets of our new-found home.
My parents had a fairly communicative grasp of English - Dad did, at least...mum had to pick up the language pretty much from scratch - she still has us correcting her Christmas Cards, when she writes them to our friends in Australia (lets not forget, my parents' generation never had English at school - back in those days it was Russian and Russian only).
My sister and I knew only Polish, having never heard English before in our short lives. The concept of 'languages' was unfamiliar to us. You talk to communicate your needs and that's it. In a child's mind, if people don't understand you that's their problem and you explain it to them in a more physical way...(notice the frustration in your kids when they can't express what they want and you can't understand them? The biting, shouting, crying, pinching, kicking..?). Turns out that was a strategy I took on in Kindergarten - the place of my first encounter with English. If the kids didn't understand me, I'd just beat them up....Mum only found out about this AFTER I 'graduated' from Kindergarten, mind you... So nothing to worry about, expat mums! It's all a process ;)
Apparently it only took 2-3 weeks for me to pick up English and I was bringing it home to the younger sister, and testing it out on her! Katie had a much better head start when she embarked on her Aussie kindergarten adventure.
Our story is not different to any other expat story: As is the case with ex-patriot families, the children get put into local schools, where they become fully immersed in the culture and language of their host country. This is exactly what happened to Katie and myself. At the end of our stay in Australia we could proudly say we were Aussie Kids! The best thing is, we have no conscious recollection of actually having to "learn" the new language. It "came" to us naturally.
Mum and dad made a conscious effort however, to make sure that we never forgot our first mother tongue - Polish. We had lessons in Polish, practiced reading and writing in Polish, had Polish friends. It wasn't 'just' a language that we used to speak with the parents. It was a living language. A language needs to be nurtured and practiced in order not to be forgotten. Preferably in an environment that is natural to a child.
It cost our parents a lot of hard work and effort but for that we will also be forever grateful.
Our stay in Australia made a profound impact on me and my sisters. I realise every day how lucky I am and that having English - the lingua franca of today's increasingly globalised and connected world - as a mother tongue is definitely the best thing that could have ever happened to me. My love for English persisted as I went into my linguistic studies, graduating with an Ma at the top of my class, having developed a program that taught English to non-native speakers through literature and play. Now I am on a mission to bring English to kids, whose parents understand the value of the language and the head-start it gives to their children in life. I am on a mission to educate confident communicators.
Scientists say that 70% of jobs that will exist when our kids enter the job market still are not known to us today. If there is one thing we should be sure to teach our kids, it is English and communication skills. Confident communicators will survive in any future world!
Expat parents! I can relate to your experience. I was that expat child all those years ago and I think I turned out pretty ok;)
The questions you are asking yourselves: bilingual school or local; rigorous learning or fun free play; additional language lessons or not...
It will all work out in the end. Your kids simply need to know that you have their back: that they have your amazing love and support, your engagement and drive for the best. Together you can conquer the ENTIRE world, no matter what country you are in!
There's a number of lessons that can be taken from this brief story:
1) Whenever you see an opportunity in another country - GO FOR IT!
My parents never once regretted having chosen the Australian experience over the business building Polish option. I have never regretted coming to Switzerland over 6 years ago! Broaden your mind, expose yourself to new experiences, languages, cuisines and you might just come up with and even better idea for a business down the line.
2) Relocating to a new country (especially Switzerland!) is one of the best things that can happen to you and your children.
My sisters and I will never be able to thank our parents enough for the gift of language, identity and mindset they gave to us when we moved to Australia. Being bilingual is such an amazing blessing and kids here, in Switzerland become bi-tri-if-not-more-lingual! Naturally.
3) Languages for kids are a natural thing. If they are immersed in a language, learn it in a spontaneous, natural and playful environment, it comes to them quickly and pain-lessly. It's the best way to 'learn' a language.
4) Don't forget about nurturing the main/ first family language.
'Just' speaking to your kids in the main family language at home won't ensure your child will maintain the language. Conscious effort needs to be made on the parents' side when sustaining and teaching the family's main language to the children. But the language learning itself needs to seem effortless for the child. It's only in a natural and fun environment that the language will actually come to life. Try out after-school classes, where children engage in projects and get a chance to play and learn with other kids in that language.
I was lucky that my second mother tongue is English - the lingua franca of the grlobalised, interconnected world of the 21st century.
Make sure that English is also your child's head start in the future!