What it takes to raise children in a bilingual home
A growing number of Irish families are using more than one language at home — and kids are reaping the benefits, writes Alex Meehan
From kids in Gaelscoileanna to the children of the new Irish, more and more Irish families are using more than one language with their children. So how do these families tackle the issues that can arise as a result?
For Linda Hogan and Éanna Ó Brádaigh, multiple languages in the house are a fact
of life. The couple have four children — Éabha (14), Lilí (12), Saibh (10) and Róise (8) — and all have been raised to be fluent in both English and Irish.
“I think of us as a bilingual rather than Irish-speaking family, because we use both languages. I was taught through English and went to an English-speaking school, but my husband was brought up through the medium of Irish,” said Linda Hogan.
“His parents were both Gaeilgeoirí and he was brought up in Glenageary. So at home he speaks Irish all the time and I speak English. My Irish is good and I understand I would say 85 to 90 per cent of everything that is said.”
All four of the couple’s girls attend Irish schools, with the younger girls in primary school and the older in Gaelcholáiste Reachrann in Donaghmede in Dublin. According to Hogan, the use of two languages around the house seems totally normal to her now, but she appreciates that it might be unusual from the perspective of people who only speak one.
“I think what sounds normal to my ear might sound quite unusual to someone else. Éanna speaks Irish to the kids all the time, even when we’re out and about so that might sound different to people.
“Are we any different to anybody else? I don’t think so. Family life is the same in Irish as it is in English to be honest.”
Hogan said that the Irish language and Irish culture in general are very important to her husband and that using the language allows the family to maintain a sense of connection to the positive aspects of Irish culture that they associate with it.
“The kids speak Irish in school obviously, but also with their friends. If I go to collect them from school, especially the younger ones and they have a play-date or something, they get into the car together and they all speak Irish. So there is continuity from school into the car or bus and then at home.”
Learning a language from a young age has been shown to be beneficial to picking up additional languages and Hogan believes that this is borne out in her family.
“Our eldest chose to study French for her Junior Cert and she’s had no problem picking it up. She is clever anyway but it seems to come easy to her.
“And we have family relations where the children were brought up speaking Irish at home and they’ve gone on to learn multiple languages relatively easily from a young age.”
For Connla Ní Ruiséal, her Spanish-speaking husband José Vacas and their children José (8) and Ruairi (5), not only are Irish and English spoken in the house, but so too is Spanish.
“My husband José came here to learn English and ended up staying and we now have two boys. I went to an Irish-speaking school and wanted that for my children, but Spanish was always going to be spoken in the house as well because of José’s Spanish heritage.
“The way it works in this house is that the boys speak Irish at school, English at home with their mum, and Spanish with their dad.
“The older boy is more fluent in Spanish because when he was young we lived close to some Spanish-speaking relatives and he picked it up more easily.
“We subsequently moved to the suburbs and so our younger boy has less contact with Spanish social interactions other than with his dad. As he gets older and goes to Spain more, I’d expect it to come on,” said Ní Ruiséal.
“For both myself and my husband, language is an extremely important tool for staying in touch with our heritage.
“In my husband’s case, it’s particularly
important that the kids speak Spanish because it means they can talk to their cousins and grandparents and grow up with a sense
of connection to the Spanish side of their family.”
She added: “For me, it’s important that they speak Irish because that gives a sense of connection back to the good things of the past that come through the language, not to mention that there is a natural advantage to speaking multiple languages.”