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How to raise bilingual children in Sweden: 8 language tips and tricks

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How to raise bilingual children in Sweden: 8 language tips and tricks
Eight key pieces of advice for parents raising their children with multiple languages. Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se
15:44 CET+01:00
Raising a child in more than one language also raises a lot of questions, from which languages to use when, to what to do if the child refuses to respond. Luckily, Sweden is a great place for bringing up bilingual children. The Local spoke to experts to get advice on exactly how to do it.

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Sweden's multilingual families take many forms. There are the new arrivals whose children must now learn Swedish to integrate. There are other parents whose children were born in Sweden, but who want them to grow up speaking their own native language(s) as well.

Others may simply have heard about the benefits of bilingualism and want their children to enjoy the opportunities it offers; studies have suggested that speakers of multiple languages are more open-minded and may be less likely to develop dementia, and it's certainly an asset in the globalized working world.

Fortunately, Sweden is a great place to grow up multilingual. Most government authorities offer important documents and information in a variety of languages, and the high proportion of foreign-born residents (17 percent) means there's a strong international community and plenty of resources out there for non-Swedish speakers.

But that doesn't mean it will be easy. Here are some pointers for anyone considering raising bilingual children in Sweden.

READ ALSO: Bringing up kids multilingual in Sweden: the tales of six families


Games can help children with all sorts of aspects of language. Photo: Kristin Lidell/imagebank.sweden.se

Mother-tongue tuition

Support for bilingual children is an official part of Sweden's school system, though the exact form this takes depends on the language and your local municipality. 

Sweden first introduced free 'native language education' (modersmålundervisning or hemspråksundervisning as it was earlier known) into the school system in the 1960s. It starts in the first year of school, when students are aged six, and comprises extra teaching in the home language, usually once a week, to act as a bridge between the child's two languages.

The aim of this is to explain the content of lessons given in Swedish, and to allow the child to develop their native language to the fullest extent possible. This teaching usually takes place outside the normal school day as an extracurricular activity, and from grades 6-9, children can get a grade in the subject which counts towards their total academic score. Additionally, recent arrivals to Sweden who haven't learned enough Swedish to understand their classes can apply to their school for studiehandledning (study assistance), to have lessons explained in their native language.

READ ALSO: All The Local's articles about family life in Sweden


A first-year classroom in Sweden. Photo: Ann-Sofi Rosenkvist/imagebank.sweden.se

In Stockholm alone, 17,000 pupils receive mother tongue tuition in a total of 60 languages. There are a few requirements in order to receive the classes: it must be the native tongue of one or both parents, the child must speak it daily; and even in those cases, municipalities are only required to offer support in a language if at least five students request it and a teacher can be found. As a result, access varies across the country.

The exceptions are speakers of Sweden's official minority languages (Sami, Finnish, Meänkieli, Yiddish and Romany Chib), who are eligible for mother tongue tuition even if they have not already learned the language and/or if just one student requests it. 

Forms to apply for mother tongue tuition can usually be found on the 'school' or 'education' section of a municipality website, or by speaking to the school's headteacher. However, these extra classes alone will not be enough on their own to ensure children grow up bilingual.

"The negative side is that often pupils only receive mother tongue education for 30 or 40 minutes a week, which is not enough to give a real chance for the language to be develop," explains Leena Huss, a Professor of Finnish at Uppsala University whose research focuses on bilingualism and minority languages. "And in some languages, there are very few mother tongue teachers." 

Choosing a method

Since these classes are only meant to supplement bilingualism, most of the child's language-learning will take place at home. There are two main methods of raising a bilingual child, and which one you choose will depend on your family situation.

The one-parent one-language method, with each parent speaking a particular language, often works best if you each have a different native language. If both parents speak a language other than Swedish, it might make sense to speak the parental language at home and then speak Swedish outside the home, or let the child learn it at preschool. 

Other methods could involve one or both parents switching between the different languages they speak, or, particularly with older children balancing several languages, introducing different languages for different contexts: Spanish on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for example, or English at weekends. If a language is only used in a limited context like this, it's unlikely to be enough to get the child fluent, but could work well to keep a known language fresh in their mind.


A dad and his young child out in the snow. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

That doesn't mean you can't adapt to changing circumstances, however. Huss, who spoke her native Finnish to her three sons while her husband used Swedish, says she found her children adapted easily when they moved between countries.

"When our two eldest sons were three and six, we moved to Finland where we spent three years before returning to Sweden. When we left Sweden, the boys were used to speaking Swedish with each other although they always spoke Finnish with me. It took them about three months in Finland to shift their common language from Swedish to Finnish," she says.

"After three years, having returned to Sweden, it took the boys about three months again to shift from speaking Finnish to speaking Swedish with each other."

Which languages to use?

If both parents have a different native language, the one-parent one-language method might be the obvious choice, but in other cases it might not be clear which languages to prioritize. For example, if each parent has a different native language but they speak English together, they might should one speak English with the child? Or if they both have the same native language but one parent has a second language, is it worth passing this on to the child?


A busy morning with two children. Photo: Leif R Jansson/SCANPIX/TT

"We haven't studied this, but a report that reviewed studies on bilingualism from the US concludes that it will only have a positive effect [to teach a child a non-native language of the parents] if the parent is highly proficient," says Merete Anderssen, an associate professor at the Department of Language and Linguistics at the University of Tromsø in Norway, who has carried out extensive research into bilingualism and language acquisition.

"If one parent has a second language, it depends. If they have studied it and feel relatively proficient in, but the family really has no situations in which this language would be used, we usually do not recommend this."

As for how to communicate together in front of the child, Anderssen advises parents to use whatever language they can communicate best in, rather than either of them switching to a language they're uncomfortable in. "You don't want parents to stop talking to one another in English if this is the only language that they share, but they should both consistently speak each their language with the child and make sure that they speak a lot to the child," she explains.

Exposure is everything

Whichever method you opt for, the most important thing is making sure the child gets sufficient opportunity to use each language. This could include introducing your child to Swedish TV shows or songs, even if you speak a different language at home, for example.

"We know for sure that the likelihood of a child ending up bilingual with a high proficiency in both languages depends on how much the child is exposed to each language and in particular the minority language [the one which is not spoken in the society they live in]," explains Anderssen.

LEARNING SWEDISH: All The Local's articles about the Swedish language


Photo: Maskot/Folio/imagebank.sweden.se

Andersson references a study carried out by linguist Annick de Houwer, which showed that the least successful method for raising bilingual children involved one parent speaking the majority language (the one spoken in the society the child lives in) and the other switching between the majority and minority language.

"This model provides the child with very little input in the minority language, and will also establish to the child that she can speak Swedish to both mummy and daddy," explains Anderssen.

Some parents might wonder if there's a limit to how many languages a child can learn at once – particularly if both parents are multilingual themselves. This is hard to answer, as the research out there is limited even when it comes to trilingual children, let alone those who speak four or five languages. However, the more languages a child learns, the less exposure they'll get in each, making it harder to reach full fluency in all of them.

Don't put it off

There has been a lot of debate among linguists and child education specialists about when the best time to introduce a second language is. Some parents may be reluctant to introduce their child to too many languages at once, however most evidence, including research Anderssen has worked on, now suggests that it's best to expose the child to both languages from birth as much as possible.

“We generally see that our ability to acquire languages is at its best when we're very young and then gets worse as we get older,” explains Anderssen. “However, the most important reason not to wait is that the child will not necessarily accept to suddenly start speaking another language when she is three or four. 

"A child who has spent the first four years of her life speaking only Swedish is very likely to feel uncomfortable if mother or father (or both) suddenly switches language when speaking to her. The chance is very high that the child will simply refuse to switch languages."


A father plays with his young son. Photo: Heiko Junge/NTB scanpix/SCANPIX

They won't 'mix up' their languages

A common worry in multilingual families is that by encouraging their children to speak two languages, they'll end up struggling with one – but that's unlikely.

"We know that bilingual children separate their languages early on (even before they produce language themselves) and are very good at distinguishing who they can use which language with," explains Anderssen.

She uses an example from her own family: she is Norwegian, married to a native English-speaker, and they raised their three children in both languages. "When we had grandparents from both sides present, the children would effortlessly switch language depending on who they were speaking to even when they were one to two years old."

However, Anderssen notes that the languages do influence each other. This can result in children inserting words from one language into a sentence in the other, or using a structure that's incorrect in one language and has been borrowed from the other. But it's nothing to worry about.

"This is often because one language is stronger than the other, but also because of language-internal factors; something might be easier to express in one of the languages," she says. "Sometimes this influence also helps bilingual children acquire something earlier than monolingual kids, because they get help from the other language. Also, generally, a bit of switching is natural in bilingual situations (in both adults and children)."


Photo: Ann-Sofi Rosenkvist/imagebank.sweden.se

Let the child take the lead

"Children learn what they like, not what they're supposed to learn," one bilingual parent, Natalya Pleshkova, told The Local. Pleshkova's nine-year-old daughter speaks Ukrainian, Russian, Swedish and English after moving to Stockholm in 2016, and her mother recommends taking foreign-born children to events or activities in Swedish as much as possible after moving, so that they see the new language as not just an obstacle but a tool for entertainment or new friendships.

In the Swedish capital, she recommends looking at the activities offered by themepark Junibacken and the Kulturhuset library, and many local libraries also arrange children's events.

If the child has a current passion – animals, superheroes, or science – look for resources related to it in both languages. And if they have a favourite book or TV show in one language, see if you can find a translation or subtitled version.


Pippi Longstocking is a family favourite in Sweden, and the books have been translated into many languages. Photo: Lena Granefelt/imagebank.sweden.se

What if they refuse to speak my language?

As above, children don't always stick to the plan you've carefully prepared, and this might mean periods where they refuse to speak one of their languages, usually the minority language. This can be very upsetting for parents who see the language as a strong connection between them and the child, but again, it's a good idea to follow the child's lead.

Language teacher David Martinez, who speaks his native Spanish to his children, finds that sometimes they respond to him in Swedish or English, as they are more familiar with these languages. But he tells The Local parents shouldn't see it as a failure or rejection if this happens to them.

"Comprehension is the most important thing, so I just want them to listen to me in the language and understand. That makes it easier for them to connect words and put them in context," he says.

Assistance

In one-parent one-language families, the minority language-speaker may feel under pressure to ensure their child gets enough exposure to their language. That's particularly tough if they need to work full-time.


Meeting other children who share their language pairing can motivate children to use both languages. Photo: Gorm Kallestad/NTB scanpix/TT

If possible, it's useful to widen the circle of people who speak the minority language with the child, whether that's extended family members they can talk to on Skype or during visits, or other speakers of the language in Sweden. In Sweden's larger cities, there may well be a Meetup event or Facebook group for people of certain nationalities, though in more rural areas this may be more difficult.

In that case, you could turn to YouTube or Netflix for video resources in your home language, or seek out more creative ways of increasing their exposure. Consider recording the minority language parent reading a favourite story book allowed, so the children can hear them speak even in their absence, or arranging a pen pal system (perhaps with extended family or friends) if the child is old enough to practice writing, so they can work on their language independently.

Talk to others… but don't compete 

Whatever challenges you face when raising your child with two languages, you're not alone, especially not in Sweden. It is well worth reaching out to other parents, perhaps through your child's preschool or school or any parenting groups in your area. 

The important thing is not to compare different children when it comes to language milestones and development. These things vary hugely between all children, and though it might seem like a long time if your child is several months 'later' than their peer to speak their first word, or to use a certain tense, this is unlikely to be an indicator of their future language proficiency or academic ability.


A walk through the forest. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/SCANPIX

Think long-term

Whatever the reason for your child's bilingual upbringing, it's worth reminding yourself of this whenever things get tough.

"All parents who have the possibility to use their own mother tongues or minority languages at home should do it. It is a valuable heritage well worth transmitting to one's children. Multilingualism is good for society and enormously valuable for every family and child," says Huss.

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