Article on language acquisition in multilingual families written by Tugce Ercem, a MA graduate at the University of Luxembourg

One of the smallest countries in Europe is also one of its most diverse. Luxembourg, the seventh smallest country in the EU, operates in three official languages, French, German and Luxembourgish, but many more are spoken as the residents come from more than 170 nation states. The education system in Luxembourg is also trilingual and children can enjoy a programme of multilingual education from the age of one. In primary school, they speak Luxembourgish and learn to read and write in German and French. This is challenging for many children, especially so for those of migrant background who may not speak the school languages at home. Their parents may therefore play a big role in supporting their language learning and development.

To explore some of the ways in which parents help their children become multilingual in Luxembourg, I interviewed six Turkish parents. I asked them questions on the ways they support their children when learning multiple languages, and on any strategies that they used to this effect. One of the common strategies was the creation of opportunities for their children to socialise with other people and practise Turkish and Luxembourgish in meaningful and fun ways. For instance, children attended afternoon clubs, engaged in various social activities and had play dates with children. Four of these Turkish parents also supported their children with private language lessons. Families also had a few other strategies to maintain their children’s skills in Turkish: they communicated in Turkish only at home, paid visits to family members and friends in Turkey once or twice a year, and sent their children to Turkish lessons.

While these methods and strategies are helpful in order to learn and maintain languages, the literature can bring even more inspiration. For instance, reading to children and having a reading culture are also very important. Children transfer reading skills from one language to another, and, therefore, reading in the first language facilitates reading in other languages. Attending an early education and care institution, such as a crèche, can also familiarise children with new languages from an early age.

Eventually, according to previous studies, children who attend an early childhood institution develop languages more easily than the ones who stay at home with their parents, especially if the latter do not speak the language(s) of the host country. This is the case because children are exposed to languages and have a need to use them. It is important to note that children learn and speak languages when they feel a need, hence, the relevance of creating opportunities where children use languages. For instance, parents can ask children in Luxembourg to order their own food, thereby using Luxembourgish, German or French, rather than speaking for them.

There are many ways parents can support the language learning of their children and parents should choose age-appropriate strategies and methods that are convenient and meaningful for them and for their children.

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Furher reading:

  • Baker, C. (2014). Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism. 4th Edition. Multilingual Matters
  • King, K. A., & Mackey, A. (2007). The bilingual edge: Why, when, and how to teach your child a second language. Collins