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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 been mothered in. I have a friend who has exclusively spoken her second language to her children, but I couldn’t do it because I felt like part of me was missing. I then started investigating whether I’d confuse my son if I spoke a mixture of English and French, because they are both part of my identity. I wanted to share my love of Languages with a capital L, as I also speak Italian and Portuguese. Teaching secondary school French and English in Glasgow had shown me how resistant teens are to learning new languages because they don’t feel like capable linguists. I was hoping to avoid that attitude pitfall for my children.

Around this time my friend Ruth (also with a new baby and three foreign languages under her belt) and I started a blog where we shared songs and stories in all of our languages, namely French, Italian, Portuguese, German, Russian and Arabic. When I moved to Cheltenham from Glasgow in 2011 we got a group of friends together and sang songs, read stories, and introduced our preschoolers to languages from around the world. Our repertoire expanded to include Spanish, Welsh, Japanese, Korean and Norwegian, and keeps growing as we learn new songs from the families who join us. Our motto is ‘sing, learn and love languages together’ and we’ve taught thousands of families, as well as running workshops in schools, nurseries, and festivals across Bristol and Gloucestershire.

Exploring what connects us

It might sound like a hotchpotch of languages but there is method to this plurilingual play. As we explore the world map with groups of children and adults, collecting songs from each country we visit with our mascot Croc Monsieur, trying out translation and working things out from the context, the children (and the adults) learn about the links between languages and how languages have spread around the world. How did Portuguese get to Brazil? What do frogs say in Japanese? We often sing the same songs in different languages, such as Row the Boat in Norwegian or French, and Head Shoulders Knees and Toes in Italian or Spanish. This allows us to explore the similarities between languages, where they intersect. We know that pies and piedi are related – it’s quite exciting for young minds to see how the world joins up across mountains or oceans. Their parents and teachers realise how much they enjoy this learning too. They also develop preferences and interests, requesting the Russian horse-riding song rather than the Italian one for example.

Children are quick to see the links, and to spot new languages in their social circles, celebrating when we discover a language that their friends speak. One parent told me about her three-year-old son approaching a Chinese family at a barbecue and asking, ‘How do you say Hello in Chinese? Oh, ni hao! Well in Spanish we say Hola, and in German we say Guten Tag, and in Arabic it’s Ahlan.’ His barriers were down and he was ready to explore the world through languages. Communicating is good for communities, especially in the UK where I feel we have long repressed our natural linguistic skills (which all babies have) whilst ignoring our increasingly multilingual environment. It’s time for a shake up of attitudes towards languages across age groups if we are going to avoid becoming a nation of monolinguals who believe we are predisposed to being ‘rubbish’ at languages just because we learned English first. English is an ever-evolving language, with a colourful multilingual backstory. It’s a great starting point if you take a plurilingual approach to learning languages, since English is full of examples to compare and contrast with.

Why do I think this plurilingual approach worthwhile? Well, far from regretting not solely speaking French to my children, I’m delighted to see them (and others I’ve worked with) growing in curiosity about the languages around them. They have no fear of new tongues, and are making friends from multilingual backgrounds. Last year my son announced he needed to translate his favourite novel into Portuguese for his best friend, who had moved back to Lisbon. Unfazed by the complicated grammar, he sat with my big dictionary and got through two sentences before admitting that literary translation was quite tiring and he needed a snack. It’s a valuable life lesson!

I’m proud to see them making meta-linguistic connections that will stand them in good stead for learning any languages they meet in life. Most of all though, they think languages are fun and exciting, part of their friends’ identities that they can join in with as ‘English first’ speakers, and they understand that learning languages is a continuous journey rather than a final destination. Being linguists is becoming part of their identity as well as mine, and that is the greatest gift I could have given them.

'First published on EAL Journal January 2020'

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