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How to raise bilingual children in Denmark: 7 language tips and tricks

Emma Firth
Emma Firth - [email protected]
How to raise bilingual children in Denmark: 7 language tips and tricks
Illustration photo. What are the best strategies for encouraging bilingualism in children? Photo by Gabriel Tovar on Unsplash

Raising a child in more than one language also raises a lot of questions, from which language to use when, to what to do if the child refuses to respond. The Local spoke to an expert to get advice on how to do it.

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

Fortunately, Denmark is a great place to grow up multilingual but that doesn't mean it will be easy.

The Local spoke to Elisa Sievers, Cultural Consultant and Founder of Happy Children Denmark. A bilinguist herself, now raising bilingual children, she has observed bilingual schools and studied evidence on teaching multilingual children, through the Minority of Education at University College South Denmark. 

Here are her pointers for anyone considering raising multilingual children in Denmark.

1.School support

"Many Danish public schools (which are free), called folkeskoler, have 'modtageklasser', which means 'receiving classes' to welcome pupils who don't speak Danish.

You can find which schools have these classes through your local municipality, which will assess the level of Danish needed. In these classes, Danish is taught as a second language and the classes are designed to get the pupils learning the school language as quickly as possible. 

There are also private bilingual schools, which are subsidised by the government. For example, Copenhagen has Danish-German, Danish-English and Danish-French schools."

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How does the school system work in Denmark?

2. Stay authentic 

"It's really important to be authentic as parents and speak your mother tongue. So English parents coming to Denmark, should keep speaking English at home. A child can juggle languages so don't force yourself to speak another, in order for your child to understand another language.

My husband speaks German, I speak Danish even though I grew up bilingual (Danish and German) myself. It's important to be obvious that's the choice your family is making. In our case, my husband speaks German, I speak Danish and that's how we speak to each other and the kids.

If the mother and father both speak different languages to the country they live in, each parent should speak in their mother tongue and stay authentic. But they should also be aware it's important to know a basic Danish to support their kids through school."

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3. Don't worry about your child's language development

"There is research that shows it's quite common that bilingual kids don't speak or speak very little until the age of 3 because they've got all these extra words in their heads to process. So it's important to see your kid as going through a different way of learning languages to you, so give them space and don't despair.

Don't always correct their mistakes but instead repeat what the child said in the way it's supposed to be said, so it doesn't seem like a correction.

I have a four-year-old and when she starts speaking German to her German aunt, she doesn't realise she has a Danish accent and her aunt doesn't always understand her. We don't correct her, we just say 'ah you mean....' and say it in German and help out the conversation with the aunt. But don't give up on it, just guide them along."

READ ALSO: What benefits are you entitled to if you have children in Denmark?

4. Your child may refuse to speak a language

"It's really typical that the kid will have these phases of refusing to speak one of the languages. Look at the surroundings of the kid as to what is causing it.

Our oldest son refused to speak German for a while, which had a lot to do with how other people reacted when he spoke German to his Dad. 

German as a language has been unpopular in Denmark and when parents would start speaking to my son in German, it was with bad school grammar and a bit of irony and kids recognise that. My son didn't want to speak German at all and said his Dad wasn't cool; English was the cool language. 

Languages involve history and identity, so whatever your kid feels when they speak the language, will colour their experience.

When a child refuses to speak a language it can also be about power struggles with the parent that speaks that language. These power struggles are normal and healthy and they go on in general when raising kids."

READ ALSO: Why you shouldn't be surprised to hear Danish children say the F word

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5. Children over the age of 7 will learn new languages differently

"At around the age of 7, children start categorising languages. Before this age, they see everything as one big language and they don't think in boxes of different languages.

For children brought up as bilingual or trilingual, they've learnt all the languages at once so their categorisation comes around the age of 7. This is when they will start to learn the way a monolingual child does. So they'll have clearer borders and build on one language at a time, which is a good tool for translating word for word but slower progress.

Under the age of 7, they just absorb the language really quickly, it's more intuitive. If they move away from the language, they are able to access the accent easier when they return to it."

6. Don't force yourself to speak Danish at home

"Your child will learn Danish way faster so they'll be a weird power balance if you force yourself to speak Danish at home. Stay authentic and speak your mother tongue.

You can sprinkle in Danish words but the best use of the language is to help out with subjects at school, being able to say something Danish at parents' meetings, so that you're there as a support system to the child in Danish."

READ ALSO: The best Danish TV shows to watch to understand Denmark

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7. Don't give up

"One tool you can use is called 'Making Language Bridges'. If you see your kid struggling with a specific word, you can make a bridge to explain the word to that kid. So if your kid likes dinosaurs, you can incorporate that, to explain and help them remember the word. It's how we all remember words, we build language bridges. 

It's not easy to raise bilingual children, it doesn't just happen, you work at it every single day. It's about making the decision and sticking to it."

Elisa Sievers has a monthly newsletter, with tips for teachers and parents of bilingual and trilingual children.

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Comments (1)

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Anonymous 2024/03/18 18:55
stating that bilingual children may have a language delay because of that, is simply wrong. if a child has signs of a speech/language delay at 3 years old, please consult with a speech and language therapist.

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