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Learning languages: the earlier the better?


I often hear people saying 'the earlier the better' when it comes to learning languages. But it's a more complex issue that needs some unpacking, rather than a universally applicable statement of fact.

A really important thing to consider when thinking about 'the earlier the better' argument, is what you are measuring.

If it's how long it takes someone to learn a language, then it's actually quicker to start later when cognitive (thinking) skills are more highly developed and you can employ strategies such as reading, and prior knowledge and metalinguistic awareness, to help you learn a new language.

Adults learn more new language in an hour than babies, for example, who take years to make the same progress.

Children who start learning a second language when they start or change school will all finish secondary on a similar level to each other, whether they start in kindergarden or the end of primary school.

The only really measurable difference might be how 'native' they sound,...

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Multilingual is Normal Book

We did it! We published the Multilingual is Normal book, an anthology of sixty voices, talking about talking, in just one month from launch on 10th July to publication day on 10th August 2020!

This was my first foray into book publishing, and I learned absolutely loads about the process of pulling a printed work together. It was wonderful to get such a positive response to the call for submissions in July, and straightaway I could see that we would have far more than the 30 snippets I had originally hoped to achieve. In the end, we created an anthology with 223 pages of wordy wisdom and woe!

Reading through the submissions, which people sent from all over the world, was an incredibly moving experience. As you might know, I'm from a very un-multilingual bit of English countryside and was late to the multilingualism party. And it turns out, I'm not the only latecomer! Several contributors felt similarly shy about declaring their love for multilingualism, having grown up 'just...

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Multilingual is Normal

babel babies Jul 09, 2020

Don't you love hearing about how people got hooked on languages? About the funny times when words went wrong, the little moments when it was pure joy to hear the words coming out of your mouth, and the incredible stories about languages saving the day. I certainly do! And to celebrate the fact that it's nearly 20 years since I became a languages teacher, nearly 10 since we launched Babel Babies, and to mark the beginning of a new chapter as I head off to Oxford University to research language acquisition in October, I am publishing a book! In a month!

And I'd love you to be in it.

Here are the details:

Title: Multilingual is Normal
Project launch day: 10th July
Publication day: 10th August
Submissions: 700-800 words max, in English.
Submission deadline: 25th July

So, grab your dictaphone, your laptop, your favourite tale of wordy wonder/woe, your aspirations for your kids...whatever you'd like to tell the world about learning languages. We are looking for 30-40 submissions, and can't wait...

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Ancora Imparo

babel babies Jun 18, 2020

I am still learning.

I quote this all the time (it’s attributed to Michaelangelo, who apparently wrote it on a sketch when he was 87 years old…) but am I really learning? I mean, sure, I’m about to start a Masters in Applied Linguistics at Oxford, but am I challenging my beliefs in the light of new evidence? What received knowledge do I have that, like large stones in the framework of a garden, I am leaving unturned?

The current debate around the Black Lives Matter movement has made me examine my approach to the #multilingualisnormal movement I’m trying to create through Babel Babies and The Language Revolution. In the last six months I’ve read papers about colonialism in linguistics, and engaged with the idea that European scholars are imposing narratives and structures on, for example, languages that were invented by missionaries to south-east Africa. Swiss missionaries conveniently grouped several tribes’ linguistic forms together and called...

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babel babies May 09, 2020

Babel Babies is reading, quizzing and singing for local hospitals because they are doing such amazing work for our community!

This Bank Holiday weekend we organised Babelathon: a fundraising event for two local hospital charities in Bristol and Gloucestershire.

The schedule of Facebook live events is as follows:

Friday 8th May, 1pm: Readathon!
Cate reads all the Babel Babies stories she can find on the shelves, collected over the last nine years. There are many, many stories, in lots of languages!

Saturday 9th May, 1pm: Family Quiz!
Danni dons her quizmaster hat and entertains your family with a quiz. There will be questions suitable for all the family to join in.

Sunday 10th May, 1pm: Singathon!
Jen sings songs in different languages (including English) for THREE hours, with lots of clapping songs for the NHS! It's fundraiSING!

All of these events were live-streamed on Facebook on and the videos are available to watch all week. Do come over and join in,...

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The Gift of Languages

As I write this in a café whilst on a post-Christmas holiday in Paris, I’m listening to my three children play with the words on the menu – making observations about how café is the same in English, and crêpes has a funny hat on, and isn’t panini Italian? Cue discussion about accents and loan words. They’re a curious bunch, my three little linguists.

Early in my motherhood journey, I was trying to speak only French to my eldest (now 9). It was hard. There is lots to master in the first few months of parenting, and learning swathes of new vocabulary in French was a step too far for my sleep-deprived brain. You see, my French was that of an Oxford literature graduate who taught business English. Babies, as it turns out, are more into biberons than Balzac or budgets.

I also had this odd feeling of not really being ‘me’ when I spoke only French to my new baby. My mothering instinctively needed to be done in the language I’d...

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The Future of Communication

babel babies Dec 03, 2019

The future of communication is never certain, and we can’t just ignore the fact that phones and screen of all kinds are here to stay. Communication has always been constantly changing: change is the one constant! But now phones are not just a tool for communication; they are PART of the conversation and can become a blocker for really talking to each other. Have you noticed that? We think we are chatting but actually everyone is just looking at a screen, like in this series of eerie photos by Eric Pickersgill where he has taken the devices away.

There is much discussion about whether phones should be banned around babies and scary headlines that tell us we are damaging our babies by letting them even see screens before the age of three. The research is not conclusive, as this NY Times article explains. The technology is all too new to say for sure that screens are bad. Just think back to what phones looked like 20 years ago, when we first started texting, and 66 years ago,...

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A new chapter for language education.

babel babies Nov 02, 2019

From January 2020, we will be taking a little sabbatical from running weekly Babel Babies and Bambinos sessions in Bristol and Cheltenham. It has been a whirlwind few months, with our multilingual method gaining attention from education policy makers and researchers across the UK and abroad. It's a very exciting time for language education and we are right at the heart of the conversation. In order to make the biggest impact on the future of language education for all children, we need to pause our weekly sessions with you and focus our efforts on consolidating what we have learned through singing languages with your growing families over the last eight and a half wonderful years.

We have been thinking about how to get our positive message about learning languages together out to a wider audience, and how to extend Babel Babies up the ages into primary school as well as geographically, for some time. Our team is excited about working on this together over the early part of 2020. I...

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Best Children's Business!

babel babies May 25, 2019

This week Babel Babies won the prestigious Muddy Stilettos Award for Best Children's Business in Gloucestershire.

We are über the mond to say the least, and would like to thank all of you wonderful people for your support for our little language revolution.

Things have certainly come a long way since Cate and Ruth set up the first group in Cheltenham eight years ago! We now have parent-and-child music and language sessions running across Bristol in Long Ashton, Bedminster, Clifton, Easton, Horfield and Thornbury. In Cheltenham you can find Babel Babies in The Exmouth Arms on Mondays and Thursdays, John Lewis on Tuesdays, and the School House Café on Fridays. See the full timetable here. And we are bringing our unique multilingual approach to language education to some amazing nurseries and preschools too!

We love singing languages with you all and can't wait to see what the next eight years brings! Grazie! Shukran! Merci! Danke! Tusen tack!

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International Day of Multilingualism

languages Mar 25, 2019

Some days you just get up, get dressed and just about keep things ticking over. Other days you get up and organise the first ever International Day of Multilingualism in collaboration with world-renowned academics and language professionals.

It's pretty exciting that Babel Babies is involved in this venture, and here is everything you need to know to be involved in this worldwide movement, from the comfort of your own home.

When is it?

Wednesday 27th March

What is it?

A day to celebrate the incredible linguistic diversity of our planet. We talk about diversity in ecosystems and animal kingdoms, but do we stop and reflect on the incredible diversity of our languages? Not so much. And recently there has been a steep decline in take-up of languages at GCSE in the UK, which is incredibly worrying.

More positively, however, this has sparked lots of discussion on Twitter about why languages are wonderful and important, and the neuroscientist Thomas Bak, from Edinburgh University,...

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