Multilingual upbringing for kids: what are the challenges?

Orhan Agirdag knows the benefits of a multilingual upbringing. Yet it was with a fear that he and his partner decided to raise their son in Dutch and Turkish. Because what if they deprive him of opportunities by giving him a language of color?

Science behind multilingualism

From a purely scientific point of view, there is little reason for doubt. A multilingual upbringing almost exclusively has advantages. For example, neurological studies show that early multilingualism can positively influence both brain functions and brain structure.

Socio-cultural benefits

In addition, there are the social, cultural and emotional benefits of multilingualism. My son will soon be able to have a conversation with his grandparents, and if he wants to read Orhan Pamuk or Elif Safak, he will be able to do so in the original language. Moreover, there are significant economic benefits.

Parental concerns

Then why did we have a scared heart, you ask? Although my partner and I are both scientists, we are still flesh and blood. And they are influenced by the prejudices in society.

Multilingualism and discrimination

For the human brain it does not matter whether a multilingual child speaks Dutch and English or Dutch and Turkish: neurons do not discriminate. But for society the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ multilingualism is big. What if we deprive him of opportunities by giving him an extra language?

Parenting strategies

As soon as you choose a multilingual upbringing, the question is how to approach it. We have the luxury of both being fluently multilingual. That gives you a lot of choices. An obvious option was the so-called One Parent, One Language strategy.

A different approach

That is why we chose a method that differs slightly from OPOL. I only speak Turkish as much as possible, even with my partner. She speaks both languages. With success: our son understands both languages ​​and uses words from both languages!

Social challenges

Although our son is not yet in school, I already feel the hot breath of internalized prejudices. When I drop him off at daycare, for example. Will the other toddlers and educators look strange if I wave goodbye to him in Turkish? Will that get him expelled?

Orhan Agirdag is professor of educational sciences at KU Leuven in Belgium.