You don’t need to praise my child’s multilingualism

paper figures with "hello" and "goodbye" phrases in different languages.

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…

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4 thoughts on “You don’t need to praise my child’s multilingualism

  1. I was just discussing multi-lingualism with my 20-something son last night. My “mother tongue” – and only language for.a long time – is English, and didn’t take German until high school and college. I grew up around Spanish, but I’m one of those people you described who never really interacted with native speakers, and I really regret that now. Meanwhile, my son chose Turkish as his language to study in high school. Last night we talked about what we were doing to try to keep up with and increase proficiency in all aspects, both receptive (i.e., listening, reading) and productive (i.e., speaking, writing). Of these, we think we have the most success with reading and writing because again we find we’re not exposed to native speakers. And neither of these is much of a possibility in person here in South Texas USA. I’ve not found an online tool so far that has been helpful to me personally, but would love suggestions.. Now that my son is over 1000 weeks old, at least we can talk about it now! 🙂

    1. Ah, Bonnie! How cool that your son took Turkish! So, I am studying Greek doing online lessons with a Greek teacher – online learning used to happen earlier but now with coronavirus it has become much more usual. I also found that exchanges can be pretty good, and I think you can probably find a good amount of Spanish speakers around you. I sometimes find tools like Facebook useful to look up communities that already exist. Maybe language schools that offer informal afternoon meetings, or maybe if there is a university that offers languages around you, you may get access to native speakers there. I also find TV series and music really helpful to hear the language. Happy to talk about it further!

  2. I grew up in Dubai. My parents spoke Dutch to me, I went to an English school (primary and secondary). on Thursday afternoons I would get Arabic lessons all primary school long. I had French classes aged 7 to 14, then I did 2 years of German. What languages do I speak? Dutch and English and a bit of German. These are the languages I needed. Dutch to talk to my parents, German to understand my cousins and everyone in the UAE spoke some form of English, it was the common language. So I never needed to use any of the Arabic I learned at school. The same for French. I did have French friends, but they spoke in English to me. We visited France twice during my childhood, neither time for very long, maybe a week. And once we basically went to Euro Disney where they also make it possible to get what you want without needing to speak French…. So I had no need for it, and so I never learnt it properly. Only after moving the Europe to study and going on holiday to France more often did I start recollecting some of the language lessons from almost 10 years earlier. I think I could make better sentences in France 10 years later than during my french classes.
    Its also rather disappointing that a friend of mine figured out how the Arabic numbering works and looks within about 30 minutes of being in the UAE whilst I had lived there for over 18 years and still had no idea. He just looked at car number plates that had both our numbers and that of the Arabic style on them….
    I now have a son (he’s only 9 months old), he doesn’t speak anything yet, but I speak to him in Dutch. My wife talks to him in German (she’s German). We talk to each other in English. We live in the Netherlands, so he will pick up Dutch, but he spends most of his time with his mom. he now recognises and reacts to many german words.

    1. Dear Jodi,
      Thanks for sharing this! I think that the ways in which languages work within us is so mysterious sometimes that it is hard to predict how much of your life they will be in the future.
      I am thinking about how much Arabic was an external part of your life but didn’t develop further for the reasons you explain.
      In my case, I learnt Spanish as my fourth language when I was 22, and I never studied the grammar. Surprisingly, it was the first language I ever wrote fiction in – it is so similar to Italian in terms of structure that it sort of allowed me to get closer to Italian again. But if you’d asked me in my early 20s I would have never guessed it would come to be part of my daily life as much as it is now.
      Thanks for sharing, and I look forward to an update when your son starts sharing words and sentences!

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