Raising the bilingual child.

PIN ITIt was always very much in the plan to raise Bo bilingual. Cultural identity is such an important part of our sense of belonging… it gives us a language by which to understand the world around us. It gives us benchmarks. It gives us something to rebel against and something to adhere to (some of us do much more rebelling than adhering, which I think is great). Without it, we would be lost. Some people may think we would be better off, but the reality is we are conditioned by our culture, by the very undertones of the world around us… whether we like it or not we need it as a platform from which to jump. It’s up to us to choose what we do with that cultural shaping. I digress, there is actually a LOT more I want to say about this, but not right now. Right now I want to answer one readers question about what happens now with Bo, with how we (I) choose to raise her.

For me in many ways it would be easier to just raise her my way. In my language. With my social norms (which are not always societal norms – but more on that another time). With my words and my understanding and my (lack of) religion. But that wouldn’t be fair on Bo. Bo is half Indonesian. That culture, those words, the smells, the religion, the earthy beauty of the people, the salt in the air, the generosity of spirit, the grounded spirit of my in-laws – it’s all a part of her. The coconut trees and the dark sand and the salty fish are part of her identity. They always will be. A part of her will always belong to that spectacular archipelago of islands that I fell in love with (and in). It would be irresponsible for me, I think, to ignore that. It is important that she understands a different way of life. It is important that she can eat rice with her hand off of banana leaves and that she can successfully de-bone a fish with one hand. It is important that she understands never to offer or receive gifts or money with her left hand, that can use a squat toilet and doesn’t balk at the idea of showering out of  a bucket. It’s important that she is respectful of her families religion and of their traditions. It’s important that she understands that many people live without the creature comforts that come standard living in the western world. It is important that her family in Indonesia live without hot water, ovens, fancy toys and clothes and house furnishings… that we lived like that for years too… that we will probably  live like that again. It’s important that she understands that what you have does not define who you are, it’s what you DO that counts. I learned all of these things whilst I was there and I will do everything I can to hang on to them so that I can teach them to her. So that when we visit Indonesia she can learn more about who she is from the family there that love her…

I don’t know what will happen next week, month, year with Bo’s father and I. I don’t know what will happen to our relationship or where we will go from here when it comes to parenting our child. But one thing is certain, I will work very hard to ensure that the Indonesian culture is an important part of her life. It is a challenge for me, seeing as I am not Indonesian and we are not living within the culture any more… but I will find a way.

When Bo is big enough to really ask questions and interact more then i will have a better shot at weaving some of the intricacies and differences between Eastern and Western life into the fabric of our day to day lives. For now, that’s a little unnecessary and might be over-complicating things.In many ways the Indonesian culture is a big part of her life still. Babywearing and co-sleeping are very important elements of Indonesian parenting that we (I) have always incorporated into our lives. We didn’t use them because they were Indonesian, but because they were right for us – regardless of the fact they are not Western societal norms. I stand very strongly by my decision to continue to co-sleep as well as extended breastfeeding… but those are food for thought for another day.

For now what I see is most important is language. And that’s a very tall order for me. When I arrived in Indonesia three years ago I spoke not one word of the language. I now can confidently say I can speak Indonesian. I can hold a reasonable conversation and I can understand a fair bit of written (casual) Indonesian without the need for my dictionary, but I am by no means fluent. Regardless of this I talk to Bo in Indonesian a lot. Although Ni speaks very good English his family speaks none, so for Bo to have a good relationship with her Indonesian family it is vital that she can speak the language.

So this is where I start. Language. I talk to Bo primarily in English, because that is what comes nturally to me. But when I give her simple instructions (ie. eat your dinner, it’s time for bed, careful that’s hot etc.) I try to do so in English and then repeat the instruction/explanation in Indonesian. Sometimes now I just use the Indonesian word or simple phrase and I know now from her response that she understands. She clearly understands the words for eat, drink, follow, sleep (lay down), wake up (get up) and kiss in both languages. So I guess we are getting somewhere.

It’s a big responsibility to have alone as a parent. It’s a lot to think about and a lot to consider. I know that I wont be able to give her as full a picture of the culture, as full an experience, as her father would have been able to give her if he had the time or the inclination to do so. But I will do my best. We have a few picture books that are in both English and Indonesian. Unfortunately they aren’t very well written (or illustrated) so they don’t hold either of our attention for long. Perhaps it requires that I do a bit more research to find better stories.

We are at the very beginning of this journey into bilingual childhood. I was only raised with one language so it’s completely new territory for me. I’m sure there will be plenty of stories and mistakes and achievements and set backs and wonderful slip-ups along the way.

Are any of you raising bilingual children? Do you have any tips? I think I could use all the help I can get!

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  • January 16, 2013 - 5:20 am

    Joelle - I was raised speaking French and English at school and some French at home. My cultural heritage is half French Canadian. It is not something that I have brought into our home in Australia. My children will miss out on this as I do not have the support to bring French into our home – and it is hard doing it alone. So a few things I can do are listen to French Music, read French books and use simple French sentences at home. It will continue to be an important part of my heritage – but living in a non French speaking culture AND dealing with the cultural differences between Australia and Canada (yes, there are many!) is something I find hard to ‘tackle’. One step at a time! The girls will explore their heritage when the time is right for us!ReplyCancel

  • January 16, 2013 - 5:45 am

    Rebekka - I try to talk to Ronan in German as often as possible but as I haven’t spoken it the last 3 years( not very often anyway)so I keep slipping back into english. it will be good when we go to Switzerland for 3 month, I am sure when we get back he is better in German than he is in English.ReplyCancel

  • January 16, 2013 - 5:56 am

    EricaR - OooooR….you could start writting your own indonesian childrens stories/book for you and Bo. Not sure what major chains are in Australia, but here in Ontario/Canada Walmart has many online options to compose scrapbook/stories on your own. You can do online or in store. Create your own simple stories and include pics of Bo as well in the stories (Time for bed, Dinner time, Bo goes to Indonesia, Skype time with Family…the possibilities are endless).
    You have half the work done already with all your photos of Bo, and certainly have the ability to write…..add in some culture and Voila, Momma!ReplyCancel

    • January 22, 2013 - 12:38 pm

      TOI - this is such a great tip, going to try to do something similar for my italian children’s book 🙂ReplyCancel

  • January 16, 2013 - 6:03 am
  • January 16, 2013 - 6:57 am

    Lilybett - I think children’s songs and rhymes are a great way to keep culture alive and to teach culture to young people. Mama Lisa’s World is an awesome website for this. They have the lyrics in Indonesian and English, .mp3s so you can hear them being sung and even some videos.


    I know you can also get bilingual English/Indonesian versions of the Disney stories/movies like Lion King, 101 Dalmatians, A Bug’s Life, Aladdin, etc. While Disney stories don’t necessarily always present ‘girls’ and ‘princesses’ in inspiring ways, the pictures are bright and they have lots of simple sentences, and you could always supplement them with the English DVDs.

    You can also try http://www.languagecentre.iinet.net.au – I came across them when I was doing some early childhood education. They’re an online (Australian based) multilingual bookshop.ReplyCancel

  • January 16, 2013 - 7:18 am

    santi - Hi Sash!

    Ecky Upritchard gave me link to your blog. Thank you for sharing the wonderful story about your journey towards the decision on bilingualism.

    Husband and I have two trilingual kids (ages 9 and 5). Raising multilingual kids is rewarding but very challenging at the same time. We are very committed to the One Parent One Language method (OPOL), follow what the experts recommend and now our kids speak three languages. Yet, the struggle continuous :D. Keep up the good spirit!

    Santi in Sydney, Australia.ReplyCancel

  • January 16, 2013 - 8:09 am

    Jenn - Sash, I think you are doing an amazing thing for Bo. She deserves to understand her cultural background and will be grateful later in life that you did everything in your power to keep that alive for her 🙂

    You are doing exactly what you can and that’s what counts. You inspire me everyday and I can only hope that I become half the mother you are when Pat and I are blessed with a babe!

    Love you loads and miss you more xxReplyCancel

  • January 16, 2013 - 8:46 am

    manisnyaduniaku - That’s a good start, Sash.. I am, too trying to speak both Indonesian-English to my baby (and sometimes Javanese) as my family hardly speak English. I kinda do the same like what you’ve been doing with Bo, simple instructions in both language. And yeah, we’ll see where the time gonna take us to..ReplyCancel

  • January 16, 2013 - 9:12 am

    maxabella - This is such a great post, Sash. We had every intention of raising our children bilingual in English and Italian (husband), but never had a plan and so… it hasn’t really happened. Big fail for me. xReplyCancel

  • January 16, 2013 - 12:27 pm

    Erica @ to the sea - Yes, I’m raising my daughter to speak Spanish and English. The plan was that I would only speak to my daughter in Spanish and my husband would only speak to her in English. This, however, wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Even though I’m fluent in Spanish and grew up speaking both languages, I’m just so used to speaking English all the time that that’s what comes out. I haven’t given up, though, and I do it as often as I remember. About half of her nursery books are in Spanish and we read a couple of those a day as well. I think that language IS so much part of the culture that you can’t really even completely understand a culture until you speak the language… so good for you that you’re trying to teach your daughter Indonesian even though you aren’t a native speaker.ReplyCancel

  • January 16, 2013 - 1:13 pm

    Mel - We are a half Greek, half Australian family who mainly speak Greek. Our kids arent fluent in Greek (they speak more Japanese after spending time there). But hopefully they will choose to enbrace the Greek side of their culture in their own time.ReplyCancel

  • January 16, 2013 - 2:26 pm

    Sarah - I have nothing to give im afraid on raising a child in two languages. however i hope i can help on the book front!
    I love these publishers, their books are amazing. I have a few from them and the illustrations and the paper they print on is beautiful.
    Had a quick search and found these
    If you have time take a look, they look beautiful. Enjoy xxReplyCancel

  • January 16, 2013 - 3:19 pm

    Ecky - I follow Santi’s method one parent one language so I speak only Indonesian and Sam speaks English to Antonia, I want her to be able to communicate with my family when we are visiting Indonesia. So far she understands simple words like burung (bird), makan, tidur, susu.

    I got some Indonesian books but Disney adaptation like sleeping beauty and the mermaid. I remember when I was a kid I read a lot of traditional stories like bawah merah bawah Putih but I can’t find those book when I was back in September.ReplyCancel

  • January 16, 2013 - 3:20 pm

    Ecky - Oh I sing Indonesian kids songs tooReplyCancel

  • January 16, 2013 - 4:09 pm

    Jessica - I think this is great! My husband and I are also attempting to raise our daughter bilingual. She is only a few weeks old right now but we both speak to her in Spanish and English. My husband only knows a few Spanish words and phrases so this is helping him out as well. My Mom says the best thing to do is make sure you speak both languages everyday, that is how she raised me and it seems to have worked. Anyways I love read your blog! Bo is just so adorable!ReplyCancel

  • January 16, 2013 - 4:58 pm

    Sharlene - We (I) are raising our little girl bilingually. To be honest, we started off trilingual, but my husband got more and more lazy with speaking Mandarin to her as he was the only one speaking it and, being that he wasn’t her primary carer, her exposure to it was probably a bit too low for her to pick it up in a major way.
    I’ve spoken Thai to her since birth, with my mum and sisters contributing to this, which has helped a lot, I think.
    Even though we never bothered with English, now that she is approaching four, it has actually become her preferred language, simply because she is exposed to it more than any other language, despite me never speaking it to her.
    I think that just by you speaking what Indonesian you can to Bo, will give her an appreciation of the language and culture, even if she doesn’t pick it up fluently. And language is only one part of culture, there are always visits back to Indonesia, Indonesian food, and just the parts of the culture that you have adapted into your everyday life. Whether you are very intentional about bringing these things to her attention, or whether you let it happen organically, I think that she won’t be able to help but identify at least somewhat to the part of her that is Indonesian, as it is undeniably there and part of how he family functions, regardless of whether it is her primary culture or not.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is, do what you can and trust that she will develop her own cultural identity that is unique to her. I don’t think she will be able to deny how amazing that part of her culture is when you already have such a passion for it 🙂

    I am loving your blog, by the way!ReplyCancel

  • January 16, 2013 - 5:10 pm
  • January 16, 2013 - 6:54 pm

    aliciabetts - Hello Sash,

    I can only share my short experience, but maybe you can make out something for you and Bo.

    I speak English to my son, Aimar, my partner Spanish and at school they use Catalan. So he is officially being raised in a trilingual context. I was brought up in Catalan and English, and later learnt Spanish. Since we live in Spain now, I decided to make the effort to speak English to Aimar, considering that the other languages he’d learn anyway through friends, school and family.
    We have the opportunity to do the one parent one language option, but I think the most important is to be consistent in whatever method you use and to have specific spaces or activities linked to a language. For example, maybe bedtime stories could always be in one language. This way, a part from the simple sentences she can pick up, there is a wider space for you/her to interact and share words in a specific language.
    I find reading books, going on errands or special play time (i.e. when you sit with your toddler and play together) to be great activities for language transmission/sharing.
    Even though I was brought up as a bilingual child, I find it magic and incredible to see how my toddler (16 months) is able to understand all three languages and respond to what is being said/asked. He has creatively found ways to communicate with those around him that do not understand all three of his languages. At the moment, he says more words in English than Spanish or Catalan, but I think that school (daycare at the moment) and the general context will “win” over my single efforts of speaking English. Since I know English will be a “minority language” in our context, I have introduced the norm at home to only watch videos in English (the very few we watch with Aimar) and any books we buy have to be in English too.

    I totally encourage you to keep it up, Bo will for sure be immensely grateful for your effort in the future. And you will find it a very gratifying task too. Being able to see how friends/family from afar can communicate to your child makes all the effort worthwhile!


  • January 16, 2013 - 7:12 pm

    Liz - Hi Sasha,

    My partner is African and speaks Swahili. We live in Australia. We have an almost 4mth old son and would love him to be bilingual but as I don’t speak Swahili apart from a few words and I am his primary care-giver, I just don’t know how he is going to get the exposure. Perhaps we will move to Kenya for a while sometime in the future and get immersed.

    Thanks for raising a very interesting subject on your blog!

    Liz xReplyCancel

  • January 16, 2013 - 7:44 pm

    Rachel - I think it is amazing that you are doing this alone. If saying things to Bo in English and then repeating them in Indonesian is working for you then keep doing it. I’ve also heard that speaking one language at home and another when outside the house and sticking to it consistently works well. Maya is trilingual although she favours Indonesian right now. She understands everything I say in English and most Balinese too I think. I only speak English to her and Made’s family speak mostly Indonesian to her with a little Balinese thrown in but she seems to be picking up the Balinese on her own anyway just from hearing it as they all speak to each other in Balinese. Before I had children I wondered about how they brought the kids up here to be bilingual as they can nearly all speak Indonesian as well as Balinese. Seems to be either the way that we’re doing with Maya or the other way around – they all speak Balinese and the child gradually picks up Indonesian from tv etc and then at school later.

    It’s been fascinating seeing Maya’s language develop. When she first started saying words it was about half english and half indonesian. The Indonesian quickly took over and she’s fluent now (more than me I think!), only throwing in a few english words if she’s talking to me. She rarely says full sentences in english but will often translate what I’m saying and repeat it back in Indonesian. Sometimes she uses indonesian language rules on english words like saying “coldkan!” if the shower water is too hot. Recently she’s started sticking ‘ken’ on the end of everything which is a balinese thing, haha.

    If you are REALLY keen for Bo to be fluent in Indonesian then the best way would be to only speak Indonesian to her as you’re living in an English speaking country and everyone else around her is speaking english, she’ll pick it up naturally. That’s a pretty big undertaking though – I’m sure I couldn’t do it.

    If you don’t manage to find any decent bilingual picture books, let me know and I can send some across – we have a couple of nice bookshops in town with a reasonable selection of bilingual childrens books (although they do tend to be poorer quality)ReplyCancel

    • January 16, 2013 - 8:35 pm

      Sash - coldkan…. cute! 🙂 I think it’s unrealistic for me to be able to speak Indonesian to her primarily at home… I am not fluent and it’s not my language, I think in many ways it would be very stressful and could potentially alter the closeness of my relationship with Bo as I would be unable to express myself as well, which would not be a good thing. Though I do understand in a dual parent household how this could work quite well. unfortunately we no longer have that luxury! 🙂 Maya sounds adorable. She’s a lucky girl growing up with all that around her!ReplyCancel

  • January 16, 2013 - 11:27 pm

    sassandspice - I think you are incredible for doing this on your own even though Indonesian is your first language. I was raised on Chinese but then when I started school I couldn’t speak English and then sub-consciously stopped speaking Chinese to pick up the English. And then my parents started speaking English to me so now understand Chinese but I can’t speak it (passive bilingualism I think it’s called)

    It’s hard but try to be consistent. I find my friends who are still bilingual are the ones whose parents don’t speak English as that is the language they pick up from TV and when they are in school with their friends so they have no choice but to speak the other language with the parents.

    Good luck!ReplyCancel

  • January 17, 2013 - 6:40 pm

    Karen - hey sash i finally found your blog after searching for it. You are a beautiful person inside out and i was lucky enough to meet you and bo. bo is very lucky to have such a wonderful mum. Xavier understands simple arabic words and loves arabic food. pete uses arabic words he has picked up from me.ReplyCancel

  • January 18, 2013 - 1:38 pm

    Dearest Dragon - i think you are very thoughtful and incredible doing this. especially when Indonesian is not your first language! I’m Indonesian Chinese and I speak to my daughter in Indonesian mainly, sometimes Chinese. My husband speaks to her in English, so she gets all three languages. I am curious to know what her first words will be – more importantly – which language!

    my parents speak Chinese to her… so she gets all 3 different languagesReplyCancel

  • January 22, 2013 - 12:32 pm

    TOI - i am a ghanaian born, raised in italy and since 2005 living in English speaking countries. now that we have a baby, i wanted to raise her trilingual but it is so hard, i am just focusing on two languages. I try my best to speak to her in Italian and when I speak with my mom and sister in law in ghanaian my daughter says few words in ghanaian. it is so funny, but i hope even with the little exposure she has with both languages she gets the feel and love languages.ReplyCancel

  • May 18, 2014 - 2:59 pm

    Andrea Hamann - It’s a tall order raising a bilingual child in a primarily mono-lingual country. Add to that the second language is your second language….Bravo for even trying. It’s amazing though, even the smallest amount of language makes a difference, and if you throw in a few month long trips to indo during her childhood you’ll be suprised how it sticks. I learnt german through my fathers random barkings at me (shut the door, be quiet, wash your hands)and then a little of VCE correspondence It took two months to become fluent so the childhood stuff must have had some input. And now…I am trying to do the same, teach the boy german. We read German stories, but not often enough, we watch german children’s programs, not often enough, we listen to german children’s music…but not often enough. It’s really hard. You can only do your best and know that that is better than most children will ever have.ReplyCancel

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