One of the aspects of my upbringing that I deeply cherish is my multicultural and bilingual background. This is something I want to pass on to my own child. I know the advantages, and maybe some slight disadvantages of being bilingual, but I wondered whether it would be tough bringing up a bilingual child.
Many years ago, while living in Boston, purely out of interest, I attended many lectures on bilingualism. Over the years I’ve read articles and watched videos about bilingual babies, am sharing two here with you. Research shows that “Early childhood is the best possible time to learn a second language. Children who experience two languages from birth typically become native speakers of both and can easily distinguish both languages and don’t get confused.” Bilinguals often start talking at a slightly later age compared to most monolinguals, and they often have a smaller vocabulary in each separate language. There is however consensus on one advantage of bilingualism: it stimulates the Executive Function in the brain (involved in switching between different tasks etc), which later on in life helps in various tasks.
I am multilingual, I speak English, Dutch, Hindi & Spanish fluently. Over the course of time and due to schooling purposes I’ve learned another 5 languages. I love travelling and I always make an effort to learn some basic words in the local language. I believe that speaking the local language creates a connection with the local community at a different level, although having said that I also know that there is more to communication than language alone.
“If you talk to a man in the language he understands that goes to his head, if you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart”Nelson Mandela
When I lived in US, I taught Dutch as a second language to children with ‘Dutch roots’. I was touched by parents who told me they wanted their child to have the opportunity to learn Dutch, something they had not had the opportunity to, due to their parents desire to completely to assimilate in US culture. I feel blessed to have been brought up multilingual (will delve more on that topic in a later blog).
I enjoy talking about languages with people. Recently we were discussing the humongous number of different languages spoken across the globe. I am always astounded about the vast number of languages spoken in India alone, not to mention many having their own specific scripts (writing systems). Someone asked me to write his name in Hindi. I tried, but soon I realized….I need to practice my written Hindi. My spoken Hindi is fine, as there have been a few occasions over the past years that I could use it. However I can’t recall the last time that I actually wrote in Hindi. I noticed I’d forgotten how to write some of the characters of the alphabet. Nowadays I’ve taken up reading children’s books in Hindi, that’s the benefit of having a 5 year old son at home.
For a child to be able to pick up both languages – to be able to talk in both languages- he/she needs to see a need to speak the ‘other’ language. In our case, living in the Netherlands, my son sees no need to speak English, as he knows I speak Dutch too. When I take him to bed though, and he chooses a bedtime story from the cupboard, he often picks a Hindi book. He smiles at me and says ‘this one only you can read.’
We’re a code-switching family. If you’re a bilingual yourself, then you will know that code-switching in bilingual adults and in children is not haphazard; it is rule-governed. During one of the lectures I attended at Harvard Uni, I was amazed to discover that children are able to distinguish between different languages when more than one language is used in one sentence (code-switching). Kids brains are amazing! But rest assured I don’t expect miracles. I know my son understands English very well and he will learn to speak it in school too. Whether he’ll be a bilingual or not…I don’t know. He does have a fascination for China and a keen interest in learning Chinese. I guess I should start looking for a Mandarin speaking bilingual play-date.