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Language Juggling

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My wife and I are in the trying-to-conceive phase of having children, so this may be just me being baby-crazy and overthinking things, but here goes...


We are both native Anglophones, but for different reasons have taught ourselves French - to a level that we regularly use French at home. We intend to raise our children speaking French, and my wife supports a mLaH approach. While we continue living in California, I feel confident that our children will also learn fluent English from the environment (especially if we teach it as a formal subject). So far, so good.


My wife is Jewish, and teaching herself Modern Hebrew - another language she wants our children to learn [beyond the Hebrew school standard for b'nei mitzvot that ends up forgotten by college]. I've been hacking at it and can recognize a few phrases and the aleph bet. We are intending to make aliyah and, at some point in the next few years, and move to Israel. We would be in Israel long enough for my wife to study for her rabbinical degree, if not longer. Our family would be surrounded by a rich and dizzying language environment (including English and French), but one dominated by Hebrew. And if we only speak French at home, I would seriously start to worry about our children's ability to speak English to their grandparents.


My question for multilingual families is - how have you handled the move to a completely different language environment? Have your dcs atrophied in one or more of their languages? Is it an overblown fear? How have you worked to save-guard the newly-minted "minority" language(s)?

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It can help if you have distinct moments or situations for each language.  For example, three languages can be done with One-Parent-One-Language plus a separate community language.  Not all of the languages will be maintained at an academic level unless you really work at it.  That is, either you are (at some point in the distant future) going to be requiring reading and writing his three operate languages... or the only spoken languages will suffer in terms of writing.  


Having said, that, this is not a huge big deal.  Not every language needs to be reading/writing/speaking fluent every moment of every day.  In our home, we emphasize one language every other year, academically speaking.  We are in a French year right now because my kids have mandatory standardized exams.  This means they write in French four days a week and English once a week and German once a week.  It means we "maintain" English spelling without making it a focus, and really do a lot of French spelling/conjugation/dictation.  Next year, we'll probably do quite a bit more in English.  German will always be learned as a foreign language, so less emphasis.  


My only counsel would be to wait and see how you feel when the baby arrives.  You may find you are most comfortable speaking to your child in your mother tongue... as much as you'd rather your child be bi- or trilingual.  Let bonding with baby take precedence over language acquisition.  


My personal story:  I started studying French in high school.  4 years, plus 3 semesters in college.  I then studied abroad in France for a semester and... married a French speaker and am now fluent and living in a French speaking country.  I say all this because so often we hear that we cannot be fluent in a language if we don't start from birth, and this simply isn't true.  It is true that I am not a native speaker of French, but I am fluent and live my life daily in French, speak to my husband in French, attended school in French, worked in French...  and so on.  It's never too late to learn a language to fluency.  Fluency is about immersion and necessity!

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Juggling languages is what we do. My son is almost 7: birth to 3 years old only Russian at home (both parents are native speakers), 3-5.5 Russian at home and English at school and community, 5.5- present: all languages are at home, school is French Immersion. Up until 1st grade we were balancing by concentrating on the language that starts to fall off the rails. Now with 3 languages I started rotating on monthly basis: Russian-English-Russian-French-Russian-English etc. Russian is more often as it's less used and only at home. Everyday reading and writing is in French always as it's his 1st year in French. Math is always in English, but from time-to-time I duplicate just to keep him exposed to Russian terminology, but new concepts are always in English as it's his dominant language. Writing in English can't squeeze but he writes at K level. Reading in English is his independent reading as his is reading 3-4 grade level books, got to that level during 2 years in K in school. Russian: no writing but planning to start this summer; parents read at bed time and on the weekend he reads early readers. All other things are based on rotated language: in March we have English in focus and we watch movies only in English, history, science in English. One rule: at home we speak (try our best) just Russian and it means we always stop him and ask to repeat in Russian.

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