Our story is similar to so many other stories: a young Estonian woman and a young French man fall in love. Everything is so easy at the beginning, there are no language barriers, everything seems possible and there is no doubt about anything.
Then the children arrive and things get more complicated.
We have two children, 11-year old daughter Alma and 9-year old son Emil. We have had the ability to move a lot between France and Estonia (it was the choice that we made on purpose in order to develop their language skills) before they had to go to school at the age of 7 and I think that it helped them to be almost fully bilingual. Also, some studies say that families where parents share daily tasks on an equal level affects children’s bilingualism. But mostly I think that we have had a lot of luck.
However, even though we applied strictly the rule “1 person, 1 language”, we read so many books to them, we banned all screens, we read many books about bilingualism, we still had many setbacks. My son spoke only French between 1-3 years even though he understood Estonian (we lived in France at that time). He just didn’t want to speak it. I was worried, I felt even anger because I didn’t know what to do. I had to answer questions from friends and family, I was asked to translate my son…nobody really left us in peace. Then one day, on our plane trip back to France, he started to speak Estonian out of nowhere.
As for our daughter, the problem wasn’t related to the language, but to her cultural identity. She has lived in Estonia for the most of her life, but she feels herself French. We talk every day about it, she misses France, she doesn’t feel herself at her place in Estonia. We don’t really know what is happening inside her and we are not sure that it will ever end: bilingual and bicultural kids are a little bit stateless. Or rather full of many states?
Raising a bilingual kid is a challenge that lasts for many years, it’s like a life project where one has to challenge the existing monolingual mindsets caused by unawareness or misinformation. In Estonia, we have to face the sad fact that Estonia doesn’t allow dual citizenship, that the working draft of our new national curriculum for pre-school child care institutions talks about bilingualism as a problem (which may be true only for children with generalized learning disabilities) and that most of Estonian schools don’t have a clue how to welcome children who come back from abroad or migrant children, on a linguistic or emotional level. The full language immersion (if used solely) isn’t a solution.
We are both happy and worried about our children. Worried because the Estonian society hasn’t quite understood that a person can have a multicultural identity and this doesn’t mean that somebody’s betraying his country. Happy because we see that our children have an international mindedness, they are open to any kind of people, they have a rich internal world. But our work isn’t finished as long as all the prejudices and disinformation have fallen.