Dubai is one of the most diverse and multicultural cities in the world to live in, where speaking more than one language is often part and parcel of every day life. Learning and acquiring new languages as young children opens up incredible opportunities in our increasingly global society, but embracing a multilingual lifestyle requires a strong commitment as a family. We speak to real UAE families about the benefits and challenges of raising multilingual children in Dubai's expat-friendly setting.
A supportive environment
"Raising kids in a melting pot like the UAE is a huge advantage," says Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore, a Pakistani expat who regularly offers tips and advice on multilingual parenting on her blog 'And Then We Moved To.' The UAE is Mariam's seventh international move and she finds it to be an extremely supportive and conducive environment for learning languages, as well as speaking your own language. "The UAE is so diverse that multilingual children fit right in," she says. "These factors can influence how successful you are in raising multilingual children."
Learning more than one language is an invaluable way to connect with different cultures and comes with a definite set of benefits. "Children learn to problem-solve earlier and they learn that communication comes in many different forms, making them more effective and creative communicators as they grow," says Helen Black, Principal of The Children's Garden Al Barsha, a multilingual kindergarten, nursery and preschool.
"Children learn to problem-solve earlier, and they learn that communication comes in many forms, making them more creative and effective communicators"
However, for multilingualism to flourish at home, it needs to become a way of life and requires planning and dedication from a parenting perspective. Helen's tips include encouraging young children to listen to songs, play games and share books in both languages. "Speak to them in both languages and make sure they get as much immersion in both languages as possible," she advises.
Consistency is the key
Navigating between at least three languages on a daily basis is the norm in Mariam Ottimofiore's home. As a parent, she finds that the number one challenge when raising multilingual kids is consistency. "My husband and I both grew up bilingually, so it's very important for us to have a consistent language strategy," says Mariam, who grew up speaking Urdu and English, while her husband speaks German and Italian. "Your kids are going to want to choose the path of least resistance and as parents, you need to be prepared with a strategy for dealing with it. If you want to pass on your language, the biggest tip is to create a need to speak it."
Make it fun
While raising multilingual children requires endless patience and dedication, Mariam Ottimofiore feels it's important to not stress out too much. "There are lots of creative and simple ways to learn languages," she says. "For example, when are you are shopping for groceries with your kids, point out different things and count in your native language. Having dinner together as a family at the table can also help."
"Research informs us that children who speak two or more languages do better academically than their monolingual peers," says Laura Henry, an Early Childhood specialist and consultant to Children's Oasis Nursery in Dubai, where children can learn multiple languages.
"Your kids will choose the path of least resistance and as parents you need a strategy for dealing with it"
"There are times that bilingual children may appear to struggle in their formative years in terms of grasping the languages that they are speaking, although they are just making sense of where the languages belong. Children understand a language before they can speak it. For instance, they are able to follow simple instructions in a language even though they may not be able to vocalise it."
Language immersion at home and away
Turkish expat Esra Tuncok Kilyar started a family after moving to the UAE. Living here, it was inevitable that her children would grow up at least bilingual, so she made the commitment to speak to them exclusively in Turkish since birth. "Once they started preschool at the age of three, they started learning English, which they are now fluent in." says Esra. "It is easy for the kids to drift into speaking English to us now, because English is also in our comfort zone, but you have to stay persistent. If they would speak to us in English at home, we would still respond in Turkish."
For Esra's family, immersion in Turkish culture is imperative to strengthening their language skills. Regular visits back home to Turkey amidst extended family enable the kids to connect more deeply with their roots and they return to Dubai speaking better Turkish.
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It's never too late
Bernadett Vizi's family moved to Dubai from Hungary five years ago. Her then-four-year-old son could only speak Hungarian. From being refused a place at his first school's assessment because he was unable to say even one word of English, to getting a complaint from his school teacher three months later because he was chatting away too much in English, Bernadett describes his linguistic journey as full of both shock and happiness at the same time for her. "When we arrived in the UAE, we could never have imagined that our son would end up speaking fluent English - better than his mother tongue and without a Hungarian accent," says Bernadett. "We are so lucky that he has picked up his second and third languages so easily (English and Arabic), so our main focus is on supporting his Hungarian language skills at home."
"It's never too late to raise a bilingual child - children can pick up a language at any age, just like an adult, however, the earlier the better," explains Laura Henry. "The best advice is to make sure that children are spoken to in their first language within the home, experiencing that language 100 per cent in an everyday context."