Raising a bi-lingual child

I have been on a serious mission these last few months. I was born and raised in South Africa and can easily speak and understand about four different South African languages. I remember sitting in a meeting conducted in English and getting a little bored so I started translating the English words in my native language of Setswana.

It was fun. Then I realised that my Neo, who was born and is now growing up in London and have started calling a television a telly (ggrrrr!) will never be able to do that. It made me so sad. But what’s sadness got to do with it. I have a job to do and honestly, it’s never too late to start teaching him Setswana. Technically he is a Mosotho (thanks to patriarchal society we come from and because PJ is a Mosotho) and although the Setswana and Sesotho are similar, I would rather he master one than learn my pathetic patch-up of Sesotho. Besides, it’s like what my brother said ‘There’s no such thing as father tongue!’

A friend was asking a few weeks ago why I am bothering. I am insisting on teaching him an African language spoken by a fraction of the world’s population. ‘When is he ever going to use Setswana in his life?’ she asked. I didn’t want to have to go into a spiel about studies on bilingual children. I feel that being born South African, it is a part of his identity and I would be doing him a real disservice if he didn’t learn or speak the language.

So I have started making a real effort; turned the volume up and only speak Setswana to Neo. It’s hard. I don’t speak Setswana on a daily basis mostly because there is literally nobody in at least a 5 mile radius of North London who speaks my language. And, to be able to switch to only Setswana has taken some real effort. I have even started speaking Setswana to PJ and have given a few phrases to Neo’s nursery and his friends so they start practising with him and greet him in his own language.

A few weeks in and we were making very slow progress. I know it will take him a while. Right now I have to prompt him to speak in Setswana. When we read books in English, I keep translating animals and things in Setswana and asking him to repeat after me. Not all of it is sinking in as I will ask him in Setswana and he will respond in English.

Most amazingly though is that even if he does not speak the language, he understands it. When I tried to trick him into washing his hair the other day while I was giving him his bath, he cried and responded in English ‘I don’t want to wash my hair!’ I love it! Now, if only I can get him to say that in Setswana ‘O seke wa ntlhapisa moriri!

On the positive side, he now knows how to say hello, how to ask for things, how to ask for help. It’s sweet. It’s a start. And when he speaks to me in English, I ask him to please speak Setswana. I’m taking advantage of this phase where they take absolutely everything in and hope it works out. I am stocking up on books, apps and fun toys to make learning his mother tongue fun and interesting. I am learning too. There were words that I have literally forgotten and have to refer to my mother and sister-in-law for translations. For example:
Rhino – Tshukudu
Eagle – Lekollwane(I honestly don’t think I ever knew this one!)
Hippo – Kudu
Below a few basic Setswana phrases:
Tsamaya sentle
Robala sentle

Only after he learns and speaks Setswana to my satisfaction, will I concede and let him learn French or Spanish.

Are you raising bilingual children? Any tips?

Thanks for stopping by. Have a nice day!
Kgomotso xx

5 thoughts on “Raising a bi-lingual child

  1. This post made me happy. I think what you’re doing is really great. So many Africans who either moved here or were born here (but have parents of different nationalities) don’t seem to identify with their African side much. I’m half South African, was born and raised in Botswana and now live in the UK (complicated much? haha) and where I live (the area), there are I’m guessing less than 10 Africans lol. There’s barely any black or people and a few other people of other ethnicities (besides white). I’d give anything to get in touch with that part of me but there’s only so much I can get. Tv shows for instance. Although I lived in Botswana, I understand it more than I can speak it, but nonetheless, I can participate n a conversation (I just reply back in English lol). The earlier you teach them, the easier and faster they’ll learn it. But the other nice thing is, I do have family and friends who are from Africa living in the UK so it’s nice to converse with them at times. I can’t really say I’m bi-lingual, I just know bits and bobs of both Setswana and Afrikaans.

    I reckon it will also make the child – parent relationship stronger. Plus, story telling in a native language is always more funnier than when it’s translated into English, haha.

    • Hi Fairy Meisie,

      Thank you so much for your wonderful comment. I agree that teaching my child my language will make our bond stronger and that is what I am hoping to get out it as well. I always have such a massive smile on my face when I walk past someone here in the UK and I hear them speaking my language. I will be very happy when one day Neo and I can watch a youtube episode of Ponko from way back when (hopefully not giving away my age too much ha!) and we both understand and laugh at the same jokes.

      Thanks again for your comments; have a lovely day!

      Kgomotso xx

      • Haha the fact that I haven’t heard of Ponko is more indication of my age. I’m going to look it up now 😀 I’m sure it will be a very proud and defining moment when that day finally comes 🙂

        You’re very welcome and thank you for posting a lovely post 🙂

        Have a great weekend *Woza Friday!* 🙂

  2. That’s wonderful you’re distilling his heritage in him at a young age. Also at that age they absorb languages like a sponge so you should be ok and he will thank you for it when he’s older!

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