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Monday, 18 June 2012

Multilingualism: only for smart kids?

Usually people react with interest when I tell them that I am raising my children to speak three languages. But sometimes they make the assumption that not all kids can be raised multilingually. They tend to think that it takes a certain kinds of kid. What kind of kid, exactly? A “smart” kid. A “confident” kid. Is this assumption true?

Yes and no. First, research has shown that multilingual children have the same, or a slightly higher IQ than monolingual children. However, I am not sure whether this is due to multilingualism itself or to the fact that some of those children come from privileged families who have more resources to ensure a multilingual upbringing. On the other hand, switching between languages is a good mental exercise, probably resulting in increased mental capabilities. So mostly, in this group, we see the children who clearly benefit from being bi- multilingual.

There is another group: children of parents who leave their countries looking for work, whose languages do not enjoy a high prestige in their new country, like Arabic, or Russian. Those children are sometimes teased about their looks and their language. And it is true that maybe they need a little more confidence to be bilingual than children whose language is considered a high-prestige language, like English.

And I understand that parents want to protect their children from being teased and bullied because of their looks and language. But multilingualism can be considered a gift, a talent, something that other children do not have. It’s the same as playing a musical instrument, or knowing a useful craft. But maybe those parents are afraid their children would be bullied because they’re different. This is where the wish for the “assertive”, “confident” personality comes from. But those children are not at fault. Society is, for not accepting their cultures and languages. So if we can give our children the gift of speaking many languages, and are willing to do so (yes, there actually are reasons why a family could decide not to do this!), we should.

Other people think that children have to be really talented to speak many languages properly. But what does “smart” or “talented” mean? Of course, there is the IQ test to measure intelligence, but what about other children who do not score well on such tests? What about other types of intelligence? You have heard of people who are engineers and scientists but their language skills are terrible. Others learn languages like a sponge but can’t do maths well. I know, this is just an overgeneralisation, but how would you define the words “smart”, “clever”, “intelligent”? And is it a matter of inborn talent, or hard work and environmental influence, in other words, is it nature or nurture?

There is another thing. A few months ago, I wrote about whether multilingualism is some kind of a special need. But some children really get diagnosed with Autism, ADHD, or similar labels. The parents then think that they shouldn’t bring up these children bilingually because it’s already so confusing. As we know, the theory that learning several languages at the same time is confusing does not stand true. Although there a very few studies on this, we can assume that children on the Autism spectrum can become multilingual. Whether the parents want it, or have the time and the resources for raising bilingual children that are autistic is another matter altogether.

The truth is that almost any child can become bi- or multilingual. Because it’s not only a matter of in-born talent, it’s a matter of work, and exercise, and commitment from the parents’ side. It also depends on the family goal: is it both multilingualism AND multiliteracy? Or is it just that we want the children to understand all the languages spoken in our house but speak, read and write only in one of them?

Multilingualism does not happen “like that”. It is hard work, and it is sometimes exhausting. Yes, we know about the benefits of raising our children with two or more languages. But some parents might decide that it’s not a good idea. They might not have the time, the money, the resources, the commitment. And you know what? That’s OK as well. Because multilingualism is a choice and no parent should be judged for their decision not to raise a monolingual child.

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  1. I love this article! You are so true. It is sad but a lot of languages have low social value and thus multilingualism in those languages is not valued as much.
    I too am raising my kid to speak 4 languages. I would love to feature your multilingual experience on my blog. Contact me if you are interested.

    1. Annabelle, thank you for your comment. You are right. It is indeed sad that "not all languages were created equal". It is of course, a matter of politics. Oh wow, 4 languages! This is interesting! What languages exactly?

  2. It seems to have been scientifically shown that all other things being equal bilingual childrend are better at thinking laterally and 'outside the box'than their monolingual counterparts, and that this ability stays with them throughout their lives. So get on with it.

    1. Yes, research does show many benefits of being multilingual, and what you mention is one of them. I also mentioned the positive aspects in my post. I wrote this because "but not all children are clever/confident enough" is something I get to hear a lot. Also, if research proves something, there seems to be a lot of pressure on the parents to raise their children multilingually.But thinking outside the box and other positive aspects of multilingualism can be fostered in other ways- for example through arts and music, and of course, books.

  3. Great blog! Maybe you would like to read my book on the subject, and /or see the film on DVD we from Kentalis (in the Netherlands) made about this. The book is written in Dutch, the film is in Dutch also, but can be bought at our webshop with Englis undertitles, soon. If you look at www.kentalis.nl/meertaligheid you can find both the book and the DVD.
    Mirjam Blumenthal

  4. Hi Mirjam, thank you for your kind words! I've just had a look at the Kentalis website, it seems really interesting! I might also read your book as I am very interested in this subject. Thanks for the suggestion!

  5. I totally agree that it takes a commitment to raise a multilingual child. I'm raising my 5-year-old with English, Czech and Spanish in Canada. I think, I'll pass on the Dutch that I learnt while living in the Netherlands though....Chinese rules in Canada!

    1. Hi, so nice to see a fellow translator read this blog! English, Czech and Spanish! That is a very exciting mixture of languages because they're all from different language families. Having lived in Canada myself, I agree on the importance of Chinese there- but it probably will be an important language everywhere.


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