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Growing Up Bilingual – and More

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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.

The United Nations in Geneva: most staff speak several languages and many learned them when they were children.

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?


  1. Lulie on January 26, 2013 at 11:45 pm

    We live in Ecuador. We know a couple in the north of Ecuador who have multilingual kids.

    The wife is Japanese and speaks both Japanese and English fluently, and excellent, if not fluent, Spanish. The husband is indigenous, and speaks Spanish and Quechua.

    The wife speaks to their children in Japanese, the husband in Quechua. They learn Spanish at school, and learn English from the visitors to their organic farm, as well as a few words from their mother.

    I only wish I’d had multilingual parents when I was growing up.


    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on January 27, 2013 at 8:07 am

      What a wonderful mixture of cultures! I’ll wager those kids will be grateful for all that linguistic ability when they grow up.

  2. Lane on January 27, 2013 at 1:23 am

    I cannot imagine being able to speak more than one language a negative. I’ve tried French and German, and living in New Mexico, a smattering of Spanish. I was too old when attempting to learn all of those, making it difficult. Now, I have to rely on my partner to speak for us when we travel. *That’s* irritating.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on January 27, 2013 at 8:06 am

      My feelings exactly! It’s not about having to speak another language, but about taking advantage of opportunities.

  3. emma on January 28, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    I’ve actually never once heard anyone say “scientists say it’s too much for little brains to take.” First because it’s fashionable to have multilingual children, so much so that parents are hiring nannies specifically to teach their children a specific second or third language, and the internet is rife with parents bragging about how many languages their 2 year old can speak. Second because science has long and very publicly said the opposite: children learn languages best from infancy to age 11 because evolutionarily this is when their brains are most receptive to learning a language fluently. In any case, in most parts of the world I’ve ever lived in, being bilingual is the norm and it’s not really something people question. I’ve never heard anyone say anything negative about children being multilingual, so I’m not sure it’s something that actually has to be defended.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on January 28, 2013 at 1:16 pm

      I absolutely agree with you, Emma. That’s why I was so shocked to hear that someone would actually NOT raise their children multilingually given the chance. It then occurred to me that others might feel the same – but judging from the comments here and on social media, I think not!

  4. Jennifer on January 29, 2013 at 1:57 am

    My grandparents were from Italy and spoke Italian. But no one thought it was a language any of us needed to learn as kids. Now here I am living in Italy with only my “survival” Italian to get me by.

    That’s incredible you speak so many languages, Leyla! I would never know English isn’t your first or even second language!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on January 29, 2013 at 6:02 am

      I utterly sympathize with the Italian! My parents were both brought up in the Middle East and spoke Arabic, a language they didn’t teach me for two reasons. First, it was the only language they could speak between them that I couldn’t understand. And second, “it won’t ever be of any use,” they said. Now that was well over half a century ago. Times change…

  5. Cassandra on January 31, 2013 at 10:13 pm

    Like Lulie, I wish I’d had the opportunity to learn 2+ languages from day one. Learning languages later in life is a long, on-going process.

    I was quite surprised to find out that a Spanish-speaking friend of mine never taught his native language to his kids–and he was even a Spanish teacher!! I imagine that didn’t want his children to feel as if they were outside of American culture, but the loss was that they can’t communicate with family on his side. Language is such a gift–I can’t imagine not passing it down to your kids!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on February 9, 2013 at 9:47 pm

      That’s exactly my point. I understand the wanting to blend into a new adopted culture but my personal view is that we are enriched by what we bring with us as much as by what we absorb.

  6. Whitney Hunter-Thomson on February 9, 2013 at 8:49 pm

    I wish I had grown up in a family that was still connected to languages of past generations and therefore had learned multiple languages. If I had, then I feel as though learning languages now would be so much easier. However, through a lot of travel as a child, I also learned the lessons in cultural diversity and sensitivity. I’m therefore not sure that language needs to be the marker of cultural exposure. Although, I still dream of my husband being from another culture and therefore my kids being bilingual. Hmmm…I guess I’m undecided!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on February 9, 2013 at 9:49 pm

      I agree, those lessons are every bit as important as language, in my opinion. But if the language is available, I think it’s a shame to discard it.

  7. Emeline on February 28, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    To build on what Emma said, I also think that in today’s world they are more and more parents who are pushing their children to be mutilingual(hence the nannies and chinese language schools for 3 year olds), so may be it’s time to defend the opposite side! What might have been a wonderful experience for you can also be a difficult one for some children, everyone is different and you should not judge this mother who doesn’t speak her native English with her kids. Our son speaks French (with me) and English (at school and) but has always refused to speak Spanish (my husband’s native language). I will not force him to do so: to me it’s a bit like those dads who force their kids to try to become professionnal football players just because they wish they had been themselves!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on February 28, 2013 at 1:24 pm

      I see your point – but I’m afraid I don’t agree, at least not when it comes to English specifically. Professional football isn’t essential in today’s world but English is, for better or worse, the closest we have to a universal language right now (as French was a century and a half ago). Anyone wanting to get ahead will have a far better chance of doing so if they speak English, which is why so many parents make sacrifices so their children can learn that language. Having the opportunity to teach your child English at birth and not taking advantage of that is something I personally cannot understand.

  8. Natalie on March 23, 2013 at 8:07 pm

    I completely agree with Leyla that mixed parents should definitely allow their children to take full advantage of the multilingual environment they were born into, especially when the languages they speak include so important ones as English, French, and Spanish (I’d add Chinese), and so unique ones as Turkish (and Arabic). Even though the kids may confuse some words without being aware themselves in early age, they will automatically correct the mistakes when as they grow up. It would be such a pity if the parents waste the language resources their children are endowed with. At lease they should not deprive the children of the possibility to be impressively and uniquely multilingual, which would definitely be an asset for their future life and career!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on March 23, 2013 at 8:51 pm

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, Natalie. It’s all about missed opportunities. I guess I don’t like seeing things go to waste, whether it’s food or money or skills.

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