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Monica Porter

Two Languages

The Guardian, 3 March 2004

Bringing up your children to be bilingual gives them all sorts of advantages, says Monica Porter, while (right) two parents show how it’s done.

For as long as I’ve been a parent – and my sons are now 20 and 26 – the controversy over whether or not it is desirable to raise your children bilingually has been cropping up in my life. And recently it has taken an ironic turn.

To explain, my family is originally from Hungary and although we emigrated when I was only four, I never forgot my mother-tongue. This is because my parents spoke Hungarian to me while I was growing up (even though I answered them in English). Now, Hungarian isn’t the most useful language in the world, but I was very glad I could speak and read it when I became a journalist and the first two books I wrote, being on Hungarian themes, required a working knowledge of the language.

While I’m a great believer in multi-lingualism, when my own children were born I had no desire to teach them Hungarian. They were a further generation removed from the Hungarian connection, and in the Seventies and Eighties Hungary was still a remote Soviet satellite – what advantage could its arcane language offer them?

Fast forward to the 21st century, and it’s all-change. Hungary is a full-blown democracy about to enter the EU fold, and a popular holiday destination. And my sons are bemoaning the fact that I never taught them Hungarian, as they’d love to take their girlfriends to Budapest, chat with their relatives and generally tap into the culture. So I guess I got it wrong…

My Spanish friend Loli Farrell, who lives in London and is married to an English businessman, spoke only in Spanish to their son Alan and daughter Elena – now in their twenties – while they were growing up. Today they are completely bilingual. ‘They’ve both stayed with my family in Spain for prolonged periods, speaking only Spanish, making native friends and being immersed in the culture,’ says Loli. ‘It gives another dimension to their lives.’

As for Alan, it’s also given him a leg-up in his City career: his work for an international bank sometimes involves dealing with Spanish colleagues and clients. He got the job because of his fluency in the language.

But it wasn’t for such practical reasons that Loli passed on her mother-tongue to her children. ‘I spoke to them in Spanish because I had thoughts and feelings which I knew I could only communicate to them in the language in which my mind works. I wanted to express myself genuinely, so that they could know me as I really am, rather than an English-language version of me.’

Her thinking is in sharp contrast to the widely-held beliefs of a generation earlier. My own bi-lingual upbringing notwithstanding, most parents of that era felt that absorbing more than one language in early childhood would confuse their offspring and be detrimental to their learning. My partner Nick – son of an English father and Danish mother – remembers well the accepted wisdom of the day: ‘Not only did my mother not speak to me in Danish, but my parents were also both fluent in German and French and they refused to teach me those, too. They felt it would slow down my development in my own native language of English – that I would get muddled while working out how all the bits fit together.’

Professor Tony Cline of Luton University’s Centre for Education Studies, a psychologist specialising in language development in children, says that we have revised our image of how the brain works: ‘We used to think it had a limited capacity, like a milk bottle, and that it was impossible to pour two pints of milk into a pint bottle. Now we understand that our brains are capable of making an infinite number of connections; there is no limit to what we can take in.’

He concedes that there might be temporary disadvantages in a bilingual childhood. ‘The child sometimes applies the rules of one language to another, and so makes mistakes. But these grammatical “errors” are trivial and soon outgrown. Any slight delays in language development are more than outweighed by the benefits of bilingualism.’ These included an enlarged cultural repertoire, the boost to intellectual growth which comes from accessing the literature of different countries, and the self-evident practical benefits in an era of globalisation.

Less expectedly, perhaps, he adds that there is an equally important social advantage. ‘Experiments have shown that bilingual children are better at taking the perspective of another person – i.e. having more than one cultural “identity” heightens your ability to put yourself into someone else’s shoes. And while the practical usefulness of a language depends on how widely spoken it is internationally, in terms of its broader, more abstract value, all languages are equal.’

Multilingual Matters is a Bristol-based publishing firm specialising in books and journals on all aspects of multi-lingualism, and producing a quarterly newsletter giving advice and information to bilingual (and trilingual) families around the world. It was started nearly 25 years ago by academic publisher Mike Grover and his Finnish wife, Marjukka, who were bringing up their two sons in both English and Finnish and were frustrated by the lack of practical advice and guidance to help them in the undertaking.

‘Flawed research in Wales in the Fifties produced quite negative conclusions,’ explains Marjukka, ‘and the belief that raising children with more than one language would result in them having poor language skills. It wasn’t until the Eighties that this was discredited by more sophisticated studies in Canada.

‘When my children were born I immersed them from the beginning in Finnish, and while I was sure I was doing the right thing, I wanted to learn more about the business of raising bilinguals. A lot of research had been done on it, but it had no natural “home”. So we formed MM.’

Multi-lingual families are in constant need of practical advice, she says, because bringing up children with more than one language can be a real struggle. Some children rebel against the ‘minority language’, which makes the parent speaking it feel rejected and upsets family relationships. Some parents worry about their children’s habit of mixing different languages in the same sentence, or agonise over whether a child’s dyslexia or speech defect is caused by their bilingualism.

‘The evidence shows that multi-lingualism is a wholly positive thing in any child’s life,’ says Marjukka. ‘But it mustn’t become a battleground. The “one-parent, one-language” approach – in which the mother speaks to the children in one language and the father in another – is perfectly acceptable, but rules should not be carved in stone. For example, young children are often embarrassed if a parent speaks to them in a foreign language when they are with their English-speaking friends. It sets them apart from their peers at an age when they like to conform. I was sensitive to this with my own children, so although my rule was to speak to them only in Finnish, I did make exceptions.’

In her view – backed up by the experts whose findings they publish – it is best to start teaching a child a second language from birth. ‘Then it is effortless, the two languages are absorbed naturally, almost as if they were one. But from the age of three they separate the languages and it takes a more concentrated effort to learn them.’

Studies carried out last year in Britain concluded that children who speak two languages do better at school than those who speak only one. Dr. Raymonde Sneddon, from the School of Education and Community Studies at the University of East London, was able to demonstrate that far from being confused by using different languages, these children display greater comprehension when reading English. They tend to be in higher ability groups because the skills they acquire and develop in their language use is transferred to other subjects.

A study carried out in Leicester found that bilingualism improved a child’s overall educational performance by imbuing them with a more subtle use of language and greater communication skills. Arvind Bhatt, who led the study, said its findings contradicted the controversial comments made in 2002 by Home Secretary

David Blunkett, who decried the ‘negative impact’ on society of children growing up with different languages at home and at school.

‘Blunkett’s view was based on the false premise that children can learn only one language at a time and learning a mother tongue interferes with English,’ says Bhatt. ‘But we found that bilingualism was an asset in the long term, although it can cause some short-term difficulties.’ Which echoes the words of Prof. Cline.

The Grovers’ son Sami now edits MM’s Bilingual Family Newsletter. ‘It can be frustrating bringing a child up with two or more languages,’ he admits, ‘particularly if there is no support network around you. A family has to be patient, listen to the needs of their child and if appropriate seek professional advice from experts familiar with research on multilingualism. When nurtured with patience and sensitivity, multiple languages can be source of great wealth for children, their families and society in general.’

Now I really feel guilty. I wonder if it’s too late to start teaching my ‘kids’ Hungarian? I’ve still got an old primer somewhere…