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A life of languages
2022/10/11 | By Daphne Vlachojannis and Mimi Potvin | Photo by Dana Marin
Dutch people’s high-level ability to speak English is often a factor when internationals are considering relocating. But what happens when children are added to the equation: Which language will we speak then? We were thrilled to interview Eowyn Crisfield –expert in the field of linguistics–to learn more about how international families in the Netherlands can plan to raise their children multi-lingually.
Eowyn Crisfield, an Applied Linguist specialising in bilingualism and education, has over 20 years’ experience advising families and schools. Crisfield runs two companies: Raising Bilingual Children and Crisfield Educational Consulting, alongside her position as Senior Lecturer in English Language and TESOL (Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages) at Oxford-Brookes University, UK.
Crisfield has been an expat for many years and is an avid lover of languages. She was determined to raise her children bilingually but as a Canadian Anglophone with a ‘mostly monolingual husband’, she quips, the path to that goal was not obvious. Eowyn therefore decided, bravely and somewhat unconventionally, to proactively foster bilingualism in her children by speaking to them in French, her second language.
Family Language Planning (FLP)–offered by Raising Bilingual Children–is a process that multilingual families can go through when considering the languages that are part of their family, the level of language proficiency they want their children to develop, and the creation of a plan ensuring the children get sufficient input in those languages.
For some families, FLP is just a conversation to make sure both parents are on the same page. For others, it is a very formal process where they create a written plan and hire, for example, tutors or nannies to be part of it. FLP varies from being a light touch to quite formal, depending on the family’s complexity, how in-line the parents are, and how much control they want over their children’s language development.
“I started doing FLP a very long time ago by giving seminars on raising bilingual children,” says Crisfield. “They were designed to give parents some key information on what it takes to raise children with multiple languages, and things they needed to think about from the research base.”
When Crisfield started doing this work, there was no field of study about Family Language Planning nor policies, and the topic was rarely discussed because someone was either in a multilingual society or not. The FLP process of developing resources and a framework grew out of experience helping families, figuring out what the key tensions were, and where the struggles lay. “I rolled all that input back into the resources I developed, which eventually became the book Bilingual Families: A Practical Language Planning Guide,” says Crisfield. “It was an accumulation of my work with families in that I provided the research base, and the parents provided the questions.”
Set the tone
Following her research and collaboration with parents, Crisfield identified three things families should keep in mind when thinking about a language plan.
- Don’t underestimate the time it takes to fully develop a language. You don’t just plan for the first three years, you make an FLP for 18 years, and then your children keep it going.
- Don’t get complacent. When children are young and spending lots of time with their parents, it all seems ‘automatic’. For example, mum speaks English, dad speaks Dutch, and their child is bilingual at three-years-old. Parents often take this as a sign they’ve done their job, but the first years are the easy part.
- Never give up. Just because you are not where you want to be at a particular time does not mean you can’t get there. Not getting it right in the first year or two does not mean you should quit. Sometimes you just need to re-think your plan or bring others in.
In Crisfield’s experience, many families who never thought they needed FLP often reach out when their children are six- or seven-years-old. At that stage, children have started school in the ‘majority’ language– usually Dutch or English–and parents are often taken by surprise by the impact of that.
Families have also consulted with Crisfield because they had chosen, for whatever reason, not to pass on one of the family languages. “Sometimes parents received bad advice or were told they would make it harder for their children if they spoke multiple languages,” says Crisfield. “It makes me deeply sad to meet parents who realise when their children are six or seven, that they can’t communicate with them in the language of their heart.”
Because of this, Crisfield encourages parents to start with the language(s) that hold the most meaning– you can always move away from them later if you need (want) to. Defaulting to the language you feel most connected with when parenting–whether a minority language, one you think your child will never need, or a language you only share with your grandparents–is so important because if you don’t get in those ‘minority’ (but meaningful) languages when your children are young, it can be impossible to do so later, says Crisfield.
After 20 years of working solo, Crisfield recently decided to expand her business. “It’s been something I was thinking about for a long time because FLP is a very involved process, and I would never do it with a family if I couldn’t do it right.”
The weight of Crisfield’s professional obligations through her consulting companies and university position, plus transitioning from an international to a more local community, meant she couldn’t do as much FLP as she would have liked.
In order to continue her Family Language Planning blog and website, she needed to find people to carry the torch. Crisfield met two individuals with the right qualifications, personality, and work ethic. “I was very happy to form a new team with Mimi Potvin and Daphne Vlachojannis who were willing to do the hard work and training so that they could do the FLP job well. As a team, we can do a lot more than I used to do on my own.”
At Raising Bilingual Children, there are two main types of services offered to families: a 30-minute consultation with an FLP adviser about the family’s key questions, or a more in-depth three-part consultation (pre-session questionnaire, 90-minute meeting plus written FLP, and 60-minute follow-up session).
“We have also started doing workshops for organisations and parent groups which has been a practical way to offer information to more families at once,” says Crisfield.
If you are a bilingual family, are interested in FLP, would like more info, or want to book a consultation session, email Daphne: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit: onraisingbilingualchildren.com
Want to learn more about bilingual education in the Netherlands? Please click here.
About the authors
Daphne Vlachojannis is a lawyer with the International Criminal Court and was Crisfield’s most long-standing client. Vlachojannis hired Crisfield as a language adviser when pregnant with her first child and returned with further questions when she had another. Along with Potvin, she is now Crisfield’s colleague.
Mimi Potvin, originally from Bulgaria, pursued her MA in English and Applied Linguistics at Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich. A CELTA-qualified English language trainer, she studied with Crisfield at Oxford-Brookes University where she completed a Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching Multilingual Learner