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 language lab at M.I.T. in the United States. “I don’t think there’s going to be one way in which your brain is good for learning languages. I suspect there’s going to be many strategies and some strategies will work for some people and other strategies will work for other people,” Fedorenko says in the podcast. “All brains are different. But most brains can find ways to get good at things that hard work will often get you a long way. I think brilliance is often overrated.”

That resonated with me a lot. While people have good intentions when they talk of Lorenzo’s linguistic brilliance, I simply want to make sure that we avoid unnecessary praise and don’t box him into one thing he is supposedly good at from such an early age.

A few weeks ago, I recommended an episode of the BBC’s Parentland podcast on raising a multilingual child that gave a unique insight into children growing up with many languages across Africa. I’ve seen this in many other contexts, with friends in India or Latin America: children exposed to multilingual societies will more naturally pick up more languages. Of course not everyone becomes fluent in a language they’ve heard growing up unless they have genuine, meaningful interactions in that language. For example, I don’t expect Lorenzo to become fluent in Greek unless he takes formal classes or spends more time in the country. Plus you can always forget a language you learnt as a baby, as was (and still is) the case in some immigrant families. A friend of mine in Argentina, for example, spoke Italian with his Italian-born grandmother but slowly started losing the language after she died.

Since I’m talking about myth-busting, this scientific article also got me thinking. There is a common idea that bilingual children are better than monolingual children in some areas, such as memory and attention – areas that are connected to the executive functions. This meta-analysis calls that idea into question, showing that bilingual children have no comparative advantages in these areas.

My bottom line is that we should avoid as much as we can to hold our children up on pedestals or consider multilingualism a freakish or incredible ability at such a young age. I’m all for encouraging it, but more than praising the children, I’d love to praise the carers and societies that help children feel comfortable in their many languages, as I wrote about a while ago. (I’m also all for multilinguals who learn their languages independently as they grow up, I find their stories amazing!! I’m thinking of people like Susanna Zaraysky who is featured in the podcast episode I mentioned above.)

And for once, I’d like to praise myself too. I have lived outside of Italy for most of my adult life and have rarely used Italian to write or work. When Lorenzo was born there was never a doubt I would speak to him in Italian: I knew no nursery rhymes in other languages and I can’t count fast in languages other than Italian. If English is my journalistic language, then Italian is surely my baby language. It is my mother tongue, and though I sometimes struggle to find the right word, I am having a great time at regaining it through him.

But what will happen to Lorenzo if he ever has kids? Which language will be stronger in his case, which one will be closer to his heart that he wants to pass on? This one bilingual mother for example managed to introduce her father’s language to her child with – you probably won’t guess it – the help of a cat. But I’d love to hear from you. Were you raised in a multilingual context? If so, did that influence how you raised your kids? And if you’re raising multilingual kids, how are you going about it? Please send your thoughts by hitting reply, or below this story. Remember to log in first.

What I’ve been reading

Imagine a society where families as such do not exist and we are all in charge of each other, where blood links don’t matter. This is a simplification of what UK-born feminist thinker Sophie Lewis argues in her book Full Surrogacy Now, and this article has a great review of it. The Vice article also takes the reader through an interesting excursion through what radical feminism makes of motherhood and family in general. Thanks to Lynn, a member of this community, for sharing this. It’s worth a couple of reads because there is a lot of information to take in!

What I’ve been listening to

This 30-minute radio documentary broadcast by the BBC World Service gave me an insight into what intergenerational trauma can look like. It explores the deep wounds left by blackbirding – the 19th-century trade of kidnapping or tricking people from South Pacific islands on board ships so they could be taken to work as slaves in Australia. On the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, the stories of the children kidnapped from the local beaches are still remembered now – some 150 years later. Journalist Fiona Pepper hears the stories of the descendants of those who were kidnapped and finds out how the community continues to warn its young of the danger of white men.

What I’ve been watching

I haven’t had time to watch anything, except for one thing: the trailer of the third season of Sex Education, the Netflix series that has inspired some of my writing before. I know that the series has been criticised for how it portrays a key gay relationship (don’t go to the link unless you don’t mind spoilers!), but I still find the overall premise of the show and the openness with which it handles many of the sex taboos out there hugely refreshing. I can’t wait to have a few evenings freed up soon to watch the third season.

Who’s been inspiring me

The Designing Motherhood Instagram account is part of a larger project, including a book and an exhibition, that researches the objects and designs which have shaped our reproductive lives. It features iconic books such as Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born and objects such as breast pumps and IUDs. Stay tuned for my review of the book!

With love and care,

📣 Nabeelah Shabbir, a member of this community and a friend, edited and improved this week’s newsletter with lots of love, logging in from Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Thanks, Nabeelah! (If there are mistakes, they are my fault, not hers!)

Photo by JACQUELINE BRANDWAYN on Unsplash, paper figures with “hello” and “goodbye” phrases in different languages.

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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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