Raising multilingual kids
Raising multilingual kids in the UAE Image Credit: Shutterstock

The UAE is one of the most diverse and multicultural countries in the world to live in, where speaking more than one language is often part and parcel of everyday 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 UAE families and experts about the benefits and challenges of raising multilingual children in the UAE's expat-friendly setting.

A supportive environment

"Raising kids in a cultural international melting pot like the UAE is a huge advantage," says Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore, a Pakistani expat who moved to the UAE in 2014 and regularly offers tips and advice on multilingual parenting on her blog 'And Then We Moved To.'

As a multilingual parent, Mariam grew up in the US speaking bilingually in Urdu and English, while her husband is a native bilingual speaker of German and Italian, and between them they can speak or read another 7 languages - from Hindi to Danish. During their four years in Dubai, Mariam’s children learnt German and Urdu at home, English and Arabic at school, and Italian from grandparents.

The UAE was Mariam's seventh international move - after stints in Singapore, Denmark, Bahrain and New York among others - and she says that Dubai and the emirates stood out as 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," says Mariam. "These factors can influence how successful you are in raising multilingual children.”

The benefits of multilingualism for kids

There have been many opposing views on the benefits of second or multiple language learning at an early age, but the greater body of research suggests that the benefits of learning a foreign language extend beyond the ability to communicate in another language, says Fiona Cottam, Principal at Hartland International School in Dubai.

Fiona Cottam, Principal at Hartland International School in Dubai

"Research shows that children who can speak more than one language at an early age have improved overall cognitive abilities, which has a positive impact on other areas of education and results in higher achievement in the core subjects of mathematics and reading."

Although it used to be thought that raising a child bilingual from birth may create confusion, because of the delay there often is in bilingual or multilingual children learning to speak, parents should not be put off, says Early Childhood Specialist Laura Henry. "Research informs us that children who speak two or more languages do better academically than their monolingual peers," says Henry.

"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."

From being more effective multi-taskers, to being better speakers of their home language because of the increased understanding and manipulation of grammar and sentence structure, there is much research to show the benefits for children of growing up speaking two or more languages.

Learning more than one language is also an invaluable way to connect with different cultures, and can even make children more creative: "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, an educator and former Principal of multilingual kindergarten The Children's Garden in Dubai.

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. Here are some more tips for raising multilingual children…

Consistency is the key

While you might think that it’s a benefit to be multilingual as a parent yourself when raising multilingual children, it can actually make things more confusing in some ways, says Mariam Ottimofiore. Navigating between at least three languages on a daily basis is the norm in her multilingual home and as a parent, she finds that the number one challenge when raising multilingual kids is consistency. "It's very important for us to have a consistent language strategy," says Mariam. "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."

Be persistent

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 enabled the kids to connect more deeply with their roots and they return to Dubai speaking better Turkish.

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."

In the right place

Whatever the languages you speak in your own family, most children being raised in the UAE will be exposed to multiple languages from a young age – whether through the friends they mix with, they caregivers who look after them, or through the classes they take at school. And it seems pretty certain that this will be of great benefit to them for the future. As Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore says, “I will always be grateful to the UAE for giving me a multicultural, multiracial and multilingual society to raise them in as true global citizens with values of tolerance, respect and diversity.”