Bilingualism, is it tough?

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 what are the advantages, and maybe also some of the slight disadvantages of being bilingual, but after my son was born I wondered whether it would be tough raising 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.

Click here for the video –> How your bilingual baby’s brain handles two languages (rte.ie)

How your bilingual baby’s brain handles two languages (rte.ie)

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 is very useful and helps in performing various tasks.”

I am multilingual. I speak English, Dutch, Hindi and Spanish fluently. Over the course of time and due to schooling purposes I’ve learned another five languages. I love travelling and I always make an effort to learn some basic words in the local language. Which I confess is not always easy. Korean & Chinese, for example, I find hard to grasp & remember. I do believe though that speaking the local language creates a connection with the local community at a different level compared to speaking in English (if that’s a foreign language) . 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 the 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 do. The reason for this was their parents desire to completely assimilate in US culture. I feel I am blessed to have been brought up multilingual (I’ll delve into this topic in more depth in another blog).

I enjoy talking to people about languages. Recently we were discussing the humongous number of languages spoken across the globe. I am always astounded by the vast number of languages spoken in India alone, not to mention many of these having their own specific scripts too (writing systems). A few months ago someone asked me to write his name in Hindi. I tried, but soon I realised….I need to practice my written Hindi. I’d forgotten how to write some of the characters of the alphabet. My spoken Hindi is fine; there have been a few occasions over the past years where I could put it to use. However I can’t recall the last time that I actually wrote in Hindi. 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.  Though during our bedtime ritual, when he chooses a story book from the cupboard, he often picks a Hindi book. He smiles at me and says ‘this one only you can read.’

Sowing a seed. An Eklavya publication

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). Children’s 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 true 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.

Published by shakti

Author of Colours of a Cultural Chameleon. Kindle & paperback available on Amazon

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