When it comes to nurturing multicultural children’s connection with their heritage(s) parents who want to stay the course have a lot on their plate. I have been thinking about and sorting out the things we and other multicultural families do that seem to work and could be helpful to fellow parents. As much as I know some of the tips I am sharing below have been very useful for my own family I realize that a one-size-fits-all approach is not suited to multicultural families. So take my list as a mix of prescription and food for thought where the proportion of each ingredient is ultimately for you to decide.
Even though I know caring and intelligent parents who don’t practice this (see for example my post about Alma), I strongly believe parents should consistently speak their native language to their children. No breaking news: consistency is key in parenting, especially for young children. This naturally applies to language learning too. I avoid speaking English to Minette even in the presence of non-French speakers. Yes, it sometimes feels a little rude but I think what I am trying to achieve is more important than a fleeting sense of awkwardness. Most of the time I find people around us actually don’t mind and are rather thrilled to hear some French.
Likewise, Appa consistently speaks Tamil to Minette. She usually answers in Tamil but she sometimes starts conversations with him in English, in which case he often redirects her to Tamil. Her Tamil skills are a little behind. I think this has two main reasons. Appa has less flexible hours than me so he spends less time with Minette on a typical day. By now she has been exposed to French significantly more than to Tamil. There is also the fact that most educated Indians are fluent in English from their childhood on so their speech is often sprinkled with English words and children naturally mirror that. I observe this a lot when Minette speaks Tamil and I sometimes interject that some of the English words she uses (say, “tree”) are in her Tamil vocabulary. But this a bit of an uphill battle, I’m afraid…
One thing that I also find important is for a multilingual child to get to speak her languages with people beyond their immediate family on a regular basis. This way the child understands gradually that the scope of her languages is much larger than her circle of close relatives.
Food and traditions
This one is so easy: eat your favorite food and cook your favorite dishes from your native country regularly and most of them will become your child’s own favorites. That connection is unlikely to ever fade away. We also celebrate a bunch of holidays and special occasions from our respective countries, such as France’s galette des rois (Epiphany cake) or India’s Diwali (the Hindu festival of lights). We even traveled to India around Diwali a couple of years ago for Minette to experience the real thing with her Indian family. Which brings me to…
Multicultural children should spend time with their relatives as often as possible, even when they don’t live nearby. This is not so easy for families spread around the world. For us it means going to France and India at least once a year (so far). Minette’s two sets of grandparents also come to Cleveland once a year and we are grateful for the grandparent connection they have established with her by doing so. I think being around her uncles, aunts, and cousins on both sides on a regular basis (we take vacations together when we can) has also been essential in Minette’s familiarity with her roots.
Something we have not done but I am curious about is having our child spend long stretches of time in our native countries. A Cleveland-based Indian mom was telling me recently that both her daughters had stayed several months with their family in India. The younger daughter enjoyed the village life so much that she objects to spending her summer breaks anywhere else. I am sure her connection with India will remain a corner stone of her life.
1/3 practice / 2/3 fun
Learning a language cannot be only fun , especially when the time has come to tackle reading and writing skills. So, yes, it does require some consistent efforts in the form of lessons, exercises and, tutoring. Parents have a significant role to play here either directly or in support of teachers. In our case, I taught Minette how to read in French last year (if you are a French parent I warmly recommend Le Bled Méthode de Lecture) and we are now following up with exercise books. She also goes to Tamil school every Friday evening and Appa supervises her homework.
But I am convinced most of the learning has to be effortless and pleasurable. That means singing songs, reading books, watching films she enjoys and relates to. Her grandparents have also subscribed for Minette to the same French children’s monthly magazine I used to get, Pomme d’Api. She is delighted every time she finds it in the mail box and she goes over it very thoroughly. Likewise I bought her a day calendar with jokes and riddles in French she can read every morning. That too works well.
Past and future
I feel it’s especially important to talk to a multicultural child about the past in order to provide a solid foundation to her identity. Appa and I tell Minette stories about our growing up in India and France, about her grandparents, whom she knows well, and her great-grandparents, whom she has not known except for Aachi‘s mother. When it make sense we connect these stories with our countries’ history then we go beyond and talk about historical facts she can grasp and be curious about. Recently, we have been reading a French history book for children that Grand-Mère gave her. I also find it meaningful to suggest to her that her future will be connected to France and India in ways we and she cannot know for sure yet, many of which will be up to her.
Keep it natural and balanced
A multicultural family setting can be observed and judged from various angles but it should above all feel natural to children. And it will only if it feels (mostly) natural to their parents and if it makes proper room for the local culture and traditions in which the child is growing up. Yet another essential thing for parents to figure. But that is, after all, the creative part of raising a family. We know some ingredients should absolutely be there and some should definitely not but we still have to concoct our own special recipe over the years. And that is a work in progress!