Myths about being bilingual…

19

November, 2015

I want to share the myths of being bilingual with you and how easy I transformed from speaking two languages to four. It’s kind of a story of my life and my passion for languages. Enjoy!

I have been living in a ‘foreign language’ environment for at least 17 years. My French classes started in the 5th grade but unfortunately I wasn’t very diligent at school, so after several years of French classes I could only say the ‘Singe,’ which means monkey, because it resembled our classmate’s name, Serge! Luckily for me at some point I came to discover in myself a love for foreign languages. I quickly realised that this would open new and alluring horizons, and so here my foreign languages adventure began.

My admiration and respect for multilingual people has always been indisputable and I just wanted to be one of them to satisfy my little ego. Ever since I knew that I would make sure my children are multilingual from birth and speak as many languages as possible.

Are you bilingual or a polyglot?

When I started University, I was always wondered why our teachers and professors, who are fluent in at least one language, did not raise their children bilingual. I felt like it was such a waste of great opportunities and potential. When I asked them about this, their answers were very surprising and differed somewhat significantly:

  • The child will get confused if adults speak to it in different languages
  • Bilingual children have speaking development delay
  • Bilingual children might have psychological trauma because other children might tease them
  • The child would pick up the wrong accent from parent(s) and therefore inherit a non-native pronunciation

…and so on.

Hello! Привет! Bonjour! مرحبا! Hola!

However, I have never seen truth in these excuses and as I’ve grown older I have actually come to realise that in fact, raising bilingual children is very beneficial and worthwhile for many aspects of life – intellectually, socially, culturally, and is key in forming a well rounded perception.

In my early twenties I was a nanny to a girl of 5 and a boy of 2 in a bilingual German-French family. Their mother was bilingual from birth. She had learned English in school as well as some Polish, Russian, Spanish and Italian. She travelled a lot, had several exchange years abroad and made a successful career for herself as a lawyer. Her husband learnt French when he was a manny in France and he spoke to his children in French, regardless of his German accent. Their daughter started school at the age of 6, while the normal school age in Germany is 7. She passed all the maturity tests for school and was easily accepted. I remember her teachers saying that she spoke in German with a slight French accent and her teachers in France were actually saying the opposite, that her French had a minor German accent. I believe those were just prejudices because they knew she was bilingual. Anyway, none of this prevented her from being the youngest pupil in the class and one of the most diligent and intelligent students later on.

As for the boy, he had a speech development delay; he started to speak at the age of 2. I know one-lingual boys that struggle with their speech at the age of 4. I think the family perceived it as a development delay because his sister started to speak earlier. Moreover, in average, boys start speaking much later than girls. As a child I started to speak before I turned 1, when my brother struggled with his first words at the age of 2.

My host family were members of a French-German children club, so I knew many other bilingual children that had no obvious development issues. I even had a chance to meet their friends whose son spoke German, Italian and a German dialect that I at first perceived as English. This boy was one of the smartest little boys I’ve ever known. Unlike my host family, who had a rule to speak only French at home so that the children would be French speaking from birth and would learn German in kindergarten, this wunderkind’s family had a completely different approach. Mother was Italian; father German and the boy would have no problem to speak simultaneously in two languages. When he approached his mother, he talked to her in Italian and right away he would turn to his father and speak with him in German.

I also had another interesting experience, proving that we are capable of much more than we think. Parents in some bilingual families that I knew would speak to each other in their own native language. For instance, the grandfather in my host family was German and the grandmother was French, they would have conversations all the time, each of them speaking their own native language. I did so myself when I felt like speaking French, I would speak to my friends in French and they would speak in German or the other way around. But it was always a fun and perfectly fluent conversation.

Another myth that bothers me is that the only way to learn a foreign language is through your mother tongue. Well, it might cause more struggle for adults but still it is possible. In Germany I was attending German classes, I had some basic knowledge of the language but there were immigrants in my class with zero knowledge and they managed to learn to understand German and later to speak it. It was impossible that our German teachers would explain German grammar to each of 10 to 15 students in their native language. There were students from Russia, Syria, Tunisia, Cameroon, Korea, Israel, Romania, Bulgaria and many other countries.

Later, I took 10 English classes and our teacher was a native speaking woman from the States. She spoke only English to us and yes; some students struggled because the teacher didn’t speak good German, sometimes she asked me to explain to my classmates some English grammar rules in German. But it’s rather an exception; normally the understanding of grammar comes with practice. Translation of foreign words is usually not necessary because most of them can be understood from context. I personally don’t like dictionaries, so I use them rarely.

For children it wouldn’t even be an issue, because they learn a foreign language through games. Educators are able to show them pictures in books or perhaps play scenes with figurines. Learning a foreign language through games would be as challenging for them as to learn their mother tongue. And normally parents have no doubts that their child wouldn’t be able to learn his or her mother tongue.

So if you have a chance to open this door for your children, please don’t miss this opportunity.

 

 

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