For those who only speak one language, it can be awe-inspiring to watch toddlers talk away in various languages. Videos of two-year-olds seemingly undisturbed by the instant switching between Greek, Italian and German receive enthusiastic comments on YouTube, and make our slightly reluctant efforts on our evening Spanish classes and holidays look rather clumsy indeed.
On the other side of the debate, there are those who blame bilingualism for putting a strain on public resources like schools by linking it to immigration. Stories with headlines like ‘An eye-popping 20 percent of U.S. residents abandon English at home’ warn readers that allowing in citizens from non-English-speaking countries “has important implications for preserving a common language”. Without providing evidence to support this, they imply that having another language hinders integration as well as the mastering of the host country language.
It is exactly this kind of ‘politicising’ of languages that fuels some of the popular misconceptions about bilingualism, says Antonella Sorace, Professor of Developmental Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. She founded Bilingualism Matters in 2008 as an information centre for the local community, but soon started to receive calls from parents, researchers, health professionals, policy makers and businesses around the world. There are now fifteen branches all over Europe, with the first in the US recently opened late last year and more on the way.
“For decades, many immigrant children have been told at school that they should speak the host language at home as soon as possible. We try to persuade immigrant families that they should keep their own language,” says Sorace. She believes a child will naturally learn the language of the host country through daily exposure outside of the home. “There is no need to kill their own language, because they can be bilingual and have all the benefits of that.”
Although not all research in this area is conclusive, several studies show cognitive advantages in bilingual children compared to monolingual ones. “What I can very confidently say is that so far, all the research either does not find a difference between bilingual and monolingual children, or when there is a difference, the difference is invariably in favour of the bilinguals”, says Sorace.
When bilingual children in both Canada and India performed the same set of ’executive control’ tasks (attending to one stimulus while suppressing another one), both groups performed better than a group of monolingual children. Other research shows that bilingual children are better able to focus their mind and ignore distractions. Children speaking more than one language also outperformed monolinguals in some planning and complex problem solving tasks.
As with all popular science research, Bilingualism Matters warns for sensational but incorrect conclusions with regards to the effects of language learning on mental health. “I have seen quotes like: ’if you are bilingual, you don’t get Alzheimer’s disease’. I wish that was true, but it is not. What does seem to be the case is that if you are bilingual and get Alzheimer or another kind of dementia, in some cases the symptoms arrive up to four years later. That is of course a long time in terms of public health and personal quality of life.”
Just 14 percent of Brits and 18 percent of Irish said that they spoke at least two languages well enough in order to be able to have a conversation.
The worry of parents that a child will do worse in school if he or she is pre-occupied with a ‘home’ language is unfounded in research, says Sorace, who is a mother of two bilingual children herself. “There is this misconception of the brain being a sort of box with a final number of compartments, so that if you have too many languages there, you have less space for development. Research shows exactly the opposite: the more languages you know, the better a language learner you become.”
As adults, we lose some of the ability to learn without studying; the thing that children are so good at. Sorace believes that it is this spontaneous learning that gives children a head start: “They simply hear the language, they don’t need to be taught it and they don’t need to know how the language works. They don’t know what to do with that kind of information. They get the rules of the grammar in an implicit way. That is why we put so much emphasis on starting early.”
Despite these documented benefits, Britain and Ireland continue to feature at the bottom of the EU rankings of bilingualism. A 2012 Eurobarometer study called “Europeans and their Languages” showed that just 14 percent of Brits and 18 percent of Irish said that they spoke at least two languages well enough in order to be able to have a conversation. By contrast: in Luxemburg, the top-ranked country, the number was 87 percent, followed by 77 percent in the Netherlands.
But it might not be too late to take up some classes now: although the initial learning of a new language is harder in adulthood, a new study suggests that it boost cognitive performance even in late learners. Researchers from Bilingualism Matters at the University of Edinburgh tested the mental agility of almost 200 university students, divided into those who did or did not study modern languages. Results showed that the linguists showed more improvement in thinking skills than the non-linguists.
Parents who are bilingual themselves often want to pass on one or more of their languages to their children. With UNESCO officially declaring the 21st of February International Mother Language Day, the tide seems to be slowly turning in favour of bilingualism. Organisations like Bilingualism Matters often get asked about the best method for raising children bilingual. Situations differ from family to family, for example when only one parent is bilingual, or when one of them is a native speaker of the country the child grows up in.
Sorace debunks the myth that there is one ‘ultimate’ language or method to get optimum benefits from bilingualism. “People often ask what the point is of learning minority languages in particular: they believe English is useful but Gaelic or Sardinian is not. But for the brain it does not matter whether a language is spoken by 500 or 5 billion people. The important thing is that children hear enough of both languages in situations that they find engaging and motivating. Many parents say that they feel they are ‘doing it wrong’, but it is really about what feels relaxed and works most naturally for them,” she concludes.
“Sometimes he pretends he doesn’t understand, but that is only when it suits him!”
Rene Groot has found that a relaxed approach to bilingual parenting works well for his young London-based family. A Dutch national, he moved to the UK in 2005 to be with his Scottish partner. When their son Arlo was born in September 2013, Groot started speaking Dutch to him right away. He also chose to give up his job at a cycle clothing company in order to care full time for Arlo while his partner continued to work as an architect. “I said to her: ‘I have a job but you have a career’. Both in terms of future work prospects and salary it made more sense for us to do it this way, and we were both happy with that.”
The plan to bring up Arlo bilingual did influence Groot’s decision to become a stay-at-home dad. “I knew it would be much harder for me to teach him Dutch if he heard English all day at home, as well as in the rest of his life”, he says. “My partner worked until right before Arlo was born and went back to the office eight weeks afterwards. She started with four days from 9am to 4pm, but that soon became 8 to 5, 7 to 5 and then 7 to 7, and Saturday mornings as well. It is just me and him at home together, so he gets exposed to a lot of Dutch. He doesn’t talk much yet beyond ‘dag, dag’ and ‘bye, bye’, but you can see him respond to both languages really well. Sometimes he pretends he doesn’t understand, but that is only when it suits him!”
Groot says he won’t go out of his way to get specific Dutch educational materials, but rather goes with the flow. “We speak to my mother on Skype in Dutch once a week and we had a Dutch babysitter for a while so that he hears other voices too. But I don’t intend to teach him grammar rules or anything like that. I just want to make sure he is comfortable with the language and that he can communicate with my family. We might take him to one of these special weekend schools when he is older, but mostly I will just keep up some native traditions at home.”
Some families even step it up one more gear, by raising their children not just bilingual, but trilingual. Astrid Viciano is a science reporter, Medical Doctor and what you call a truly ‘global citizen’. She is half Spanish and half German and lives in Paris with her Dutch partner, who also speaks fluent English and German. Their 4.5-year-old daughter was born in the US and also lived with them in Germany for a while, before the family settled down in Paris two years ago. Astrid consistently speaks Spanish to her daughter, while her partner speaks Dutch. The pair used to speak to one another in German. As their daughter gets older and wants to join in the dinner table conversations, they increasingly switch to her speaking Spanish and him replying in Dutch.
“They were learning the Gruffalo story in French. So I bought the book in Spanish as well and we read that at home.”
Although the transition periods have mostly gone smoothly for the family, Viciano does recall a challenging time shortly after moving to France. “Our daughter started to go to pre-school in September. She understood everything well and was totally fine, but she didn’t say a word. We were quite concerned as it is hard to make friends if you don’t speak at all. It went on for three months, until December. But then she started to play ‘school’ with me at home. I would be the teacher and she was the student and she would switch to French, but only with me. It seemed like she was practicing.
Over Christmas I bought this really funny CD with French children songs. She would wake up at 6.30 in the morning and say: ‘Mummy, I want to listen to the CD’. So we would sit in the kitchen on a blanket and sing along. And then she went back to school after Christmas and the first day I picked her up, the teacher said: ‘She talked, and not just a few words but pretty fluently!’. That was really a nice surprise. Now she speaks French really well and we continue the other languages at home as we always did.”
Viciano says she takes an ‘active’ approach to language learning, by bringing in French and Spanish speaking nannies and doing daily playful practice at home. One method she finds particularly useful is to source the same story or movie in multiple languages. “The Gruffalo book was a big topic in school”, she recalls. “They were drawing the Gruffalo and learning the story in French. So I bought the book in Spanish as well and we read that at home. And every night we watch some short videos, like Peppa Pig in both Spanish and Dutch. In all these stories you have different settings of daily life, from going to school or to the supermarket to playing sports. That is really useful as she learns a lot of different words related to these activities. And she loves it, so she doesn’t mind seeing the same video again in a different language.”
When choosing which languages to teach their child, the couple considered their families rather than their daughter’s future career prospects. “I could have spoken German to her and my husband English. That would have probably been more helpful for her in some way, but it was not about that”, explains Viciano. “There are so many stories out there of ambitious parents who want to teach their children as many languages as possible from early on. Of course it will have some advantages for her but that is not our motivation. It is really about being able to speak with our families abroad and understanding the cultures she is a part of. There will be a day when she will ask herself who she is. France is home for her now, but she needs to have at least the possibility to connect to all these places.”
Photo by Tobias Myrstrand Leander/ Creative Commons.