Magazine: Bilingualism

What are the advantages of learning several languages from an early age? What are the dangers? What’s the best way to teach your child two or more languages simultaneously?

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Being the mother of two potentially bilingual children (the youngest is only three months old) and the teacher of French and English bilingual children, the subject of bilingualism is very important to me. In fact, we have recently moved to China and are now considering multilingualism. But what are the advantages of learning several languages from an early age? What are the dangers? What’s the best way to teach your child two or more languages simultaneously? I don’t suggest I have the answers here, but like most mothers and teachers I certainly have a point of view!

What is a bilingual child?

The way I see it, being bilingual means being able to communicate almost perfectly in two languages and also knowing something about both cultures. If I take the example of my daughter it’s about being able to understand when someone is speaking another language and being able to switch automatically into speaking it with them. At two and a half she has already grasped the concept of ‘Daddy speaks French and Mummy speaks English.' She has even picked up that Bai Yuoine speaks Chinese! I think it’s very important for her to know that the cartoon character Noddy is also called Oui Oui by her friends at playgroup and that Marmite and Cadbury's chocolate exist as well as croissants. This is what makes it possible for her to communicate with the people around her regardless of whether they are French or English.

Why encourage bilingualism?

In our case it is logical that with an English mother and French father our children should be able to speak both languages to communicate, not only with us but with their grandparents and extended family. On a wider scale, learning two or more languages helps children to accept cultures other than their own. If speaking their mother tongue(s) at home and at school is encouraged, they are more likely to enjoy their difference and view difference in general as a positive thing.

How do you raise a bilingual child?

There may be a dominant language and this will normally depend on the country you live in or the language your child uses most at school. However, it will also depend on what language is spoken in the home. We lived in France and spoke French at home but I always speak to my children in English. It’s imperative that the child has consistency. They know that their English auntie will always speak to them in English and that for her to understand them they should speak to her in English.

What are the dangers?

It can be very difficult for people around you to support what you do. Grandparents can be upset if they don’t understand what you’re saying to their grandchild and worry that they will never be able to communicate with them. This is of course highly unlikely and you should stick to your guns.

Another problem we have encountered was when our daughter refused to listen to either of us. A psychologist advised us that as there wasn’t a common language at home between the parents and child, I should stop speaking English and spend the weekend speaking only in French. Thankfully I decided to ignore this piece of advice and persisted with my English!

I also know of one child who had problems at school because his friends made fun of him. His parents eventually gave up speaking English to him. Unfortunately children can be cruel, and differences, whatever they may be, are often a source of bullying. Differences need to be promoted and valued, and celebrations such as the International Mother Language Day help to do just that.

International Mother Language Day

The first Mother Language Day was celebrated internationally on 21 February 2000. However the importance of this date originated in Bangladesh where in 1952 a handful of students, now known as language martyrs, were killed in demonstrations defending Bangla, their mother language. In 1999 UNESCO decided to take this cause to an international scale in order to encourage cultural diversity and worldwide tolerance.

The themes

Each year the celebration is devoted to a different aspect of language. This has ranged from how children learn their literacy skills at school to how to preserve some of the 6,000 languages that exist worldwide. One year was about developing the teaching of mother languages, and in 2002 the celebration helped raise awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions around the world. This year the International Mother Language Day is dedicated to Braille and Sign Language, two non-verbal languages that are an invaluable source of communication for many people around the world.

A multilingual community

It’s essential that we limit alienation throughout the world. By speaking other languages as well as your own, or having two or more mother languages, you can contribute to the creation of a global community. My contribution to this multilingual community is exposing my children to varied cultures and languages, maintaining their mother language, while trying to learn the language of the people around me. Although with my ten or so words of Mandarin I am far from being multilingual!

Discussion

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Comments

Hello John,

Thanks for your contribution! I'd suggest you look up those words in the Cambridge Dictionary. There's a handy search box in the grey area on the right side of this page. I think that should clarify the meaning of these words for you – be sure to read through all of the entries, including the example sentences, to get the most out of the dictionary – but if not, please let us know.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

I am in a bilingual English class.We are a class 27 students and we are divided in two groups.Each group has her teacher.My group is the best because the teacher is great.
We use manual Upstream and do various educational projects.We understand very well and help each other.We are a great team.

Hi everyone,

To begin with, I would say that this article is very interesting. From my point of view, learn languages is very important as I pointed out in the article, know others culture, other customs,… I'm bilingual, and it's true that you learn a lot of other cultures, it's very nice. Until then, I'm learning English, apart of my two tongues, and really I love learn English! :)

Hello,
I like this article and would like to use it. However, the download seems to include only the text, not the exercises. How can I download the latter?
Thank you

Hi Isabelle,

We might make the exercises available in pdf format in the future, but for now I'm afraid that this page only has the transcript available as a pdf.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

In some countries, people is trained to be multilingual since their early age. This is common especially in multi races countries where your mother tongue is not the national language of the country. As such the residents in this country need to master in, not only their mother tongue but also their national language as well as international language, which is English.

This is a very useful article. It arouse me the importance of Mother Tongue. When I was little, my mother held the attitude that mother tongue is not important. Thus, I am not able to speak the language frequently. So, I think parents' attitudes are quite essential. We should help to pass this precious legacy to our next generation. So, speak your mother tongue more now!

It is a very interesting article, I studied French and English at the same time when I was a teenager and It was not easy !
 

Hello,
I read this article and a I must agree with them. It is very interesting  and very useful. I would like to be bilingual child but sometimes it must be very difficult for him but on the other hand this child can find a job more easily because he or she has better memory for languages I think.

Hello everybody!
I have to agree with the article. I think it´s very useful to be a bilingual child, because you can speak two different  languages very good. But it´s very important for that children to know which language is the main for many situations and relatives from both parts of theirs families. And it may be difficult for very young children. But I would like to be a bilingual child:o))
 

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