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?

Do the preparation task first. Then read the article and do the exercise.

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!



Language level

Advanced: C1


Hello, I´am here for the first time. The article is very important for me. I certainly agree with these opinion. Bilingualism isn´t concern me because both of my parent are Czech so I have learnt English at school only. I have never been in England and other English speaking countries. I think that child whose parent are of different nationality has huge advantage. I know that children learn and understand things faster and easier than adults.They don´t worry about anybody, they aren´t afraid of anything. Speaking two languages has definitely only advantages no disadvantages.

Hello!Good  day!I'm Jane(it's my 2nd  english name)And i'm from Kazakhstan.This is country  where  people  should speak  in three languages perfectly it's kazakh,russion and english.

Hi! I am new here. 
Completely agree with the article! I speak spanish, portuguese , now try to learn italian. Now when I travel I fell more confident, than before, bilingualism allows you to know another culture, learn new things, expand the bounds of our knowledge.

Hi, I am very much hopeful after listen and see this text because our mother language, Bengali, is placed in UNESCO's encourage as well as  accept it internationally for celebrate as a "Mother language Day" in each year. I am really grateful, as a citizen of Bangladesh, to British Council for placing this topic in this podcast. Thanks a lot. 

Hi there. I absolutely agreed with this article, in this modern world bilingualism / multilingualism is something that we really need because we can't expect everyone to master our language when we don't speak any foreign language ourself. To be able to speak with one another we've to master at least one international language and as we know English was the most common for everyone in the whole world. I think bilingualism / multilingualism going to have a very good impact on the child life someday especially with the globalization everything is possible, even if we are from deprived country its possible for us to get a top job in another country as long as we got requirement they needed, and every job needs a candidate with an excellence communication skill. I am multilingualism myself and yes, there are more benefits than bad. Great day!

Hello!  I agree with the article, because the worldwide tendency is cut short the distance between the nations even the languages the people need communicate to business or relationships, the education, the internet provide the   tools to get bilinguals. In my opinion is important  teach our children to learn whit pleasure ways to learn two or more languages.

I agree with the article that it's important the bilingualism. Knowing several languages not only helps us in our job, but also understand others cultures. Never it's too late to learn a languages. In my case, I started to learn in my 30s. Now I speak English and Portugues and I'm learning Italian. My mother tongue is Spanish and I hope to start learning German the next year.

Your texts

Rustam Kamberov writes “I like this article very much.  In my opinion bilingual persons have more chances to find their way in life and achieve success in their career. As Kazakhstan was one of the USSR republics and the main unit there was the Russian Federation, the Russian language had priority. The mother languages of other republics had minimum influence in the country. That is why the generation of people that were born between 1955 and 1970 practically do not speak the Kazakh language. Unfortunately, my mother is one of the said persons. The mother language for her is Russian. In my family we spoke Russian, therefore my mother language is Russian too. I am impressed when I meet people who speak both Russian and Kazakh.”

Ojong Egbe writes “‘Smilelism’, so to speak, is that which oftentimes characterise my approach when I am face to face with particular mother tongue phrases in conversations with some persons, prior to uncovering the bric-a-brac of the language. But the particular trait of a bilingual (basically of English and French) upbringing entails the frequent swapping of languages, from English to French and vice versa, each compromising the other and looking for an uttermost dominion. This, however, is a convenient milieu for a would-be inclination, and is far from being an ingredient for this ever-distinct culture.The yet infinite but countable number of languages seemingly continue to provide a suitable springboard for a great mix and an unconditional root for a non-clichéd multicultural society as each presents itself as a variant to the others. Now, being scaled language martyrs, or of multicultural or bilingual attributes, is a limiting factor as it provides a clear-cut difference between your language preference(s) and the prevailing language. For instance, the 1952 tragedy in Bangladesh, where students where killed in defending Bangla, their mother language, in demonstrations, underpins the lack of understanding of the situation-based language between the parties involved in the demonstrations. This prevailing language needed no “formal” course route and could have gone miles to enhancing their language abilities, and even further, uplifting their language levels. In effect, if UNESCO’s action was deemed as an extensive use and intermingling of mother languages rather than as the foremost bet, I’d have been many more times be pleased.So inasmuch as the thriving for a – perfect – balance in a language or amongst languages, prejudiced or otherwise, goes, there is the need to constantly adapt to exiting front lines and working out possible dilemmas, which is the part that I am least in accord with the article.”

Cristina Carretero writes “I totally agree with the information in this article. I am bilingual myself. I was brought up with the One-parent-one-language approach. And I am what you can consider a balanced bilingual speaker as I speak Spanish and English as a native. I am also raising my two-and-half-year-old daughter to be bilingual as well, however she is being brought up with the Mixed language approach. This subject interests me very much and I am actually pursuing my PhD degree and it is the subject of my dissertation. I have kept a detailed log of the first twenty-four months of my daughter which is the first part I am writing about now. Now she is in daycare as I have gone back to work, but I will continue to keep a log until age five which will be the second part of my dissertation.”

Susana and Beatriz write “We agree with the content of the article. Knowing several languages is a great advantage for everyone and, in order to achieve this, children should start learning a second language at a young age. We, as teachers of English as a second language, know the importance of this. But we have a problem; the number of opportunities for speaking and listening to English is limited because children's families don't know a second language and so they can only practice it at school.”

Serena from Italy writes “I just wanted to tell you that I completely agree with Jo. She's brave for keeping on sustaining her ideas even if going against what a psychologist said, I think she's right. Growing up with parents speaking two different languages is a good way to learn them both without even realizing it: her children will find themselves 20 years old and with more possibilities and advantages than the others. I would like to do the same with my children, even if I'm not English, to give them the possibility to learn a language not only studying it at school or anyway from a teacher. In my country just a small number of people can understand English (not to mention any other language...). I'm 19 and I’m attending the last year of the high school (scientific lyceum, considered a hard school, it gives a good preparation). Among my 20 classmates only me and another girl can speak English, the rest of them have some problems in expressing (for example if they need to ask somebody for directions); the most of them don't even like to travel abroad to get to know different people and cultures, they are not racist, they just don't care, which I think is even worse. We should be the new generation... the European generation... but we can't even communicate! I hope to find other people that have my same ideas and could teach them at least to their children.”

Joaquin Salazar writes “I agree with the article and I consider that not only do children have problems with learning a new language, but I consider that every day cohabiting with foreign cultures limits the communication among us.

In my personal experience I started to learn two more languages as well as my native language. I’m Mexican and I speak Spanish with my family and friends, but in my job I need English and in my current studies, my teachers are Americans so I need to speak English to learn and to have good work relations. My girlfriend is Korean, she knows how to speak Spanish but sometimes she can’t show me the things that she wants to tell me so I have started to learn Korean.  

In my personal opinion, I consider that it’s important to learn more about different languages to establish good communications and understand people with different cultures.”

jl-larranaga writes "Bilingualism and multilingualism are not the exception in the world. Most people are, almost, bilingual from their childhood, without any problem. Experts says that bilingualism is good for the human mind, and that bilingual people have a better comprehension of the language system."