When people congratulate me and my partner Nacho on our son’s linguistic achievements, we usually shake off the compliment and joke that there is little merit in them. Don’t get me wrong: it’s astounding for someone like me who grew up as a monolingual to witness a toddler grasp and repeat words and sentences in several languages. I envy him for all the hard work I had to put into mastering languages other than Italian. But Lorenzo is being raised in four languages, and it would be surprising and maybe worrying not to see him interact in them.
I speak to Lorenzo in Italian, and his father Nacho, who is from Argentina, speaks to him in his mother tongue, Spanish. We’ve been living in Greece for over a year, and he goes to an English-language daycare where most of his friends are Greek, and use Greek among themselves. Lorenzo mostly mixes several languages in the same sentence, but he is aware of who speaks what at home and often he translates words into Italian if he thinks I am not understanding him. His verbs are often in English (Me wash tomates – tomatoes in Spanish – is a classic example) – I have come to ask myself whether he’s decided to pick the language that will give him fewer difficulties with conjugations. My knowledge of Greek is basic at this point, but even so I can sometimes recognise a Greek word in the mix too (papoútsia, the word for shoes, was one of his favourites for a while).
I got thinking about languages again after listening to this episode of Subtitle, a podcast I love because it looks at languages and people who speak them. This episode which I highly recommend in particular is about polyglots – those who can speak multiple languages, and whether their brains are different. I am interested in this because I myself speak six languages to different degrees of fluency and am now trying to learn Greek. I was raised with the idea that I had a particular ease with languages while my brother was good with numbers. It turns out, as the podcast explains, that the way we learn languages is still quite mysterious. So far nothing has proven that certain brain characteristics or genetic traits can help some more than others with language learning.
Journalist and podcast presenter Patrick Cox (a colleague I really admire!) interviews Evelina Fedorenko, a cognitive neuroscientist who runs a…