I am monolingual; English is my first and only language, and my four children were raised in a monolingual household in Kent, UK, where there was minimal exposure to foreign languages, and diversity is hard to come by. Sounds like a normal English upbringing, right?
Not so much. Between them, my four children (now aged 21, 23, 25, and 27) have learned Arabic, Chinese Mandarin, German, French, Spanish, and Hebrew. Pre-Covid, they were each living in Shanghai, Jerusalem, Frankfurt, and Bogota respectively.
It may not come as a shock that England is the most monolingual country in Europe; 61% of British people can’t speak a single other language. And yet, in so many other nations around the world, multilingualism is a way of life - a norm even.
So what’s the secret to raising multilingual children despite both my children’s parents only speaking English? Well, it’s not what we did, it’s what we didn’t do.
We encouraged them to try new things, and we never forced anything on them. As a professional botanical artist, my creative nature always led me to encourage my children to be unique, to stand out, to be different and to make an impact.
They were encouraged to try new things they felt themselves gravitating towards, and when we didn’t have the financial resources to send them to extra-curricular activities, we got creative.
For example, my eldest was intrigued by Chinese Mandarin. At the time, there weren’t any private tutors in the area, and educational resources online weren’t well-developed. So, every once in a while we would order Chinese takeaway and encourage her to ask the restaurant owners to teach her a new word or phrase each week.
Another example is my second child who, from a young age, was fascinated by ancient Egypt. Their face would light up when marvelling over pictures of the pyramids, or tracing their fingers over hieroglyphics in museums. They then went on to do an exchange year in Jerusalem and learnt Arabic and Hebrew simultaneously.
My third took herself off to Germany to work as an au pair; within a year she was fluent. An opera singer and dancer from a young age, she knew learning German fluently would advance her career in numerous ways. She fell in love with the food, the people and the culture instantly; her intrinsic motivation has always been aligned with her extrinsic motivators.
In many ways, the languages my children have learned align with their personalities. The romantic one speaks French, the pragmatic one speaks German, and the laid-back one speaks Spanish. I see each of them integrating seamlessly into the countries of the languages they speak.
Encouraging my children to try new things without expectations helped them to be more courageous from a young age, which is a fundamental element to language learning. You need to be okay with failing and embarrassing yourself and starting over again and again.
What’s important is to cultivate an initial sense of curiosity about exciting countries and cultures beyond the UK. You don’t even have to start with language - that can come later.
Whenever one of my children decides to plop themselves in a foreign land, I brace myself for the tears and on-hand motivational talks, particularly in the first 3 months when they are just finding their feet.
To some of my friends, I think it can seem mad that I actively encourage my children to go and explore the world like this. “Why bother, when so many people around the world speak English?”
Because my children have enhanced their empathy, their communication, and their minds. They have experienced friendships, relationships, food, music, and films that no monolingual British person could ever enjoy, let alone understand.
What’s more, their career opportunities have very clearly multiplied. Creating a household where multilingualism is the norm is essential to prepare your children for the challenges of the 21st century.
Schools aren’t going to be able to adapt fast enough, so sew the seed of global curiosity into the minds of your children now, and I guarantee that later on, their motivation to learn a new language will start to bloom.
The following tips might not work for all families, and that’s okay. The trick is to encourage, expose and excite your children about other countries and languages early on. Later, when they are ready, their motivation will kick into gear.
So, here we are. My top 8 ideas to encourage multilingualism in a monolingual home:
If you have the financial means, travel to nearby countries such as France, Spain and Germany. When you do so, go local. Encourage your children to order food when in restaurants. Get them to learn a few phrases and sentences ahead of the trip; demonstrate speaking the language yourself and they will feel more at ease.
If traveling abroad isn’t an option, there are tons of things you can shift at home in order to create a more (natural) multilingual environment. The easiest is putting foreign language subtitles on Netflix / Youtube. Language Reactor is a free plug-in you can use for this.
Normalise watching foreign language films. Again, if you yourself are actively engaging in multilingual and multicultural media, your children will absorb this and start to become curious.
Food! Try out new recipes from other countries (who cares if they don’t go to plan the first time). The point is to expose your children to dishes from around the world, and seed that curiosity. You can do this for less than a fiver.
This one is a little outside the box, and more suitable for younger ones, but organising a birthday party as ‘Around The World’ whereby each child dresses up as someone from a different country would be a lot of fun. I guess you’d have to be careful about stereotyping too much, but it would be interesting to see which country your child chooses!
Foreign family friends. Having non-native English-speaking friends yourself (even if you don’t speak their language) will expose your children to different cultures. Befriend non-Brits in the UK and help them understand the culture, music, art, food. Mimicking open-mindedness and generosity to others can only do good for your children.
Whatever your child is showing an interest in, pay attention and L I S T E N. Dive into a Youtube rabbit hole with them. Ask them questions that encourage them to explore further and share what they have already learned. Show you are interested in what they have to say.
I’ve saved the best until last! My final recommendation is to embrace creativity in general. One day during the summer holidays, for example, when all my children were under the age of 10, I rolled out a sheet of paper that covered the entire patio, armed them with paintbrushes, and set them free to paint everything in sight (including the dog).
Each of my children are so (so) different from one another; I believe that the languages they learned have had an immeasurable impact on their personalities today, and all for the better.
If you have just one takeaway from this article, let it be to encourage exploration without expectation. Explore as many cultures as you can so that your child finds the language that suits them. It's not a failure if it doesn't stick; there is a language for everyone, so guide don't prescribe, and enjoy the process!
Amber Halsall is an award-winning botanical artist who resides in Kent, UK. More information about her art can be found via her website: https://amberhalsallartist.com/