Some multilingual parents prefer to bring up their children with only one language because “scientists say it’s too much for little brains to take.”
Really? Then my brain must have taken some battering.
I was born in Paris of a French mother so of course spoke French with her. My father was Turkish and that’s what he and I spoke. I grew up in Madrid so I inevitably learned Spanish. (I didn’t even touch English until well into school and didn’t speak it fluently for years.)
All those languages must have caused my little brain untold damage.
In Spain I attended a Spanish school rather than an international one. No comprendes? No importa. I worked on my elementary arithmetic problems with a small dictionary: Peter has two apples, Paul has four, how many do they have together?
As I grew up I faced more language challenges. We moved to Iran for a year so I learned – Russian. We lived next to the Russian ambassador’s home and his children were my age and became my best friends. By 10 I’d become a linguistic sponge and languages became interchangeable. I knew they were different – but not that different.
I taught myself to read (only read phonetically, mind you) Arabic when I lived in Algeria in my early 20s. The government eliminated all French from road signs and I needed to read Arabic just to find my way around. When I was based in Bangkok as a foreign correspondent I learned enough Thai – my first tonal language – to get by comfortably and talk about food and films if not politics.
All because when I was a child, my parents had the enlightened – or irresponsible – reflex of consistently forgetting which language we were in and always opting to ‘live like locals’ wherever we were. They chose to put me into local schools, damn the language.
I’d just have to learn, and I did.
Rather than turning out addled, slow, or overstretched, I became adaptable, a quick study, and pretty fast on my feet. I have yet to meet a language I can’t tame, given a bit of time, or a situation I can’t work through (within limits – there’s nothing I can do about earthquakes, your pregnancy, or the recent presidential election in France).
So back to my friend, who despite her intermediate French insists on raising her children in that language in homage to her French husband – yet she’s a native English speaker.
“They can learn when they grow up,” she says.
Imagine that. Having the chance to learn English (still the world’s most important commercial language) at home, easily, as a child, versus being forced to study and learn it poorly later in life. I’m sure the kids will be thrilled, especially when they find out what’s involved in learning a language.
It may be parental laziness. It’s not easy to switch languages, even if you’re fluent, but it’s certainly worth it. My nieces went to French school in France but spoke English at home. When they moved to the US, they slid seamlessly into the public school system even though they’d never studied in English before, poor deprived souls. Oh and yes, they’re top students. Not bad for overextended girls.
If you detect a droplet of irateness, it’s there. I can’t imagine depriving children of the opportunity to learn another language if it’s right there, especially English, and especially in today’s increasingly globalized world.
I was trilingual by the age of three. It certainly hasn’t done me any harm.
I’d love your thoughts: Do you think learning languages when you’re young is important?