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Multilingual and loving it!

I was born into a multilingual family. My paternal grandparents are Bengalis, but my grandmother grew up in Shimla and Dehradun. She spoke and read Hindi voraciously as well as Bengali. My grandfather, having run away from his home at 15, made Mumbai his home. Hence, he learnt to speak and read Marathi. After marriage, the duo moved to Khadakvasla in Maharashtra. Here, they perfected their Marathi reading, writing and speaking skills. They passed on the love of languages to their three children.

Years later, when my father, a Bengali, met my mother, a Jain Gujarati, they fell in love. Getting married ensured that their kids, i.e. my sister and I, picked up Gujarati as well. So today we speak English, Hindi, Marathi, Bengali and Gujarati. Then I went on to marry a Gurgaon boy who has Multani Punjabis ancestry. So Punjabi is added to my list of languages. Also, I can pick up bits and pieces of Konkani and Odiya. I wrote the below post during a chance discussion in my then organisation on the introduction or exposing children to multiple languages.

When my friend Bhavya introduced me to her mom, “Ma, this is Nikki, and she can speak in multiple languages in one single sentence! Isn’t that cool?” This is a norm with many of my friends when they introduce me to their parents.

In a similar incident long ago, my dad was dropping off a friend of mine. While in the car, Dad and I got into an argument which first began in English, slowly turned into bits of Gujarati and then other languages! A few moments later a bewildered friend exclaimed, “Did you just argue in three different languages?” Dad and I just grinned back at her. People find it very amusing that my family ends up using three different languages in one sentence. It is not such a big deal as people make it out to be.

I belong to a multi-lingual family. My parents had a love marriage back in the days when love marriages were thought to be super-cool. Fortunately, they both adopted each other’s mother tongue, i.e. Bengali and Gujarati and hence, my sister and I learnt both as well. In all, we speak about five languages at home – Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, and Hindi and of course English. To most new people I come across, being proficient in so many languages seems super cool. But to my sister and me, it is as healthy as healthy can get! By the time I was one and half years old, I knew the difference between languages, hence when visiting my maternal grandmother, I would say, ‘Pani aapo’ and once back home, it would be, ‘Jol dao!’

I often have questions thrown at me, “Wasn’t it very confusing to you?” or “You must have had speech difficulties as a kid as your parents chose to speak in so many different languages to you!”

The latter is downright silly, but I don’t blame them. Like most people, they too have fallen prey to common myths.

The common belief when it comes to learning different languages or teaching your children two different styles at once is that they might get confused and have speech-learning disabilities or just not speak at all! Some parents are more worried they may confuse their child. They prefer teaching the child only one language, thinking that the schools are going to introduce a second language in the coming years anyway, so why should they try at all! This may be a problem too, as their kids then find it difficult to switch over to an altogether new language be it English in school or say learning their mother tongue once they are proficient in English.

For instance, we met a little girl recently who happily chatted away in English but blankly stared back at us when we tried talking to her in Hindi. Her parents quickly explained that they had focused on English – they felt that was very important as they wanted to get her into a good school and other languages would come in later. Of course, they would come in later, but what if the child wanted to stick to one language? Or have we ever given it a thought that a child might feel pressured to learn different languages all of a sudden when they were taught to master only one? Deborah Ruuskanen, professor of English Linguistics at the University of Vasaa in Finland, says, “It is absolutely possible to teach small children two or even three languages at once.” Further, she adds that there many kids in Europe are raised bilingual or even multilingual.  That sounds similar to the case in India too.

Here are some myths surrounding language learning:

Ø  Your kid will be confused if you let them learn more than one language
Ø  Learning a second language at a later stage is good enough. More than that is too much or not necessary
Ø  Your child will get mixed up with all the languages
Ø  Starting early is not needed. Languages can be learnt later or will be taught in school
Ø  It is not confusion when a child chooses to speak in two different languages in one single sentence
Ø  People who think children just happen to ‘pick up’ languages out of thin air, need to know that they need a stable and supportive environment to be able to master new languages
Ø  More aware, i.e. their sense of awareness is sharper as is their language recognition and perception
Ø  Better at problem-solving and are capable of separating meaning from ‘form.’
Ø  Quick to pick up languages and display enhanced necessary skills – reading, writing, communicating with others
Ø  Make better communicators
Ø  Develop a more extensive vocabulary bank over the years
Ø  Awareness of languages and its complexities is higher
Ø  Enhanced spatial abilities along with higher verbal skills
Ø  Display enhanced cognitive flexibilities
Ø  Highly improved critical thinking abilities and the ability to gain multiple perspectives
Ø  Higher tolerance and easy acceptance towards different cultures, race, people etc.
Ø  Increased vocational career opportunities in a global market
Ø  Higher self-confidence and self-esteem

To counter the above myths, here are some home truths –
v Language disorders or delays do not happen because children hear more than one language in their childhood.
v In addition to this, research shows that there are many advantages of that multilingual child have over those who speak or know only one language.
v Plus, these benefits are not limited to linguistics alone but extend to cognitive abilities as well. A study conducted in 1997 at the York University stated that children who are raised bilingual are able to grasp different languages – written or spoken, faster than kids who are taught one language.

It is seen that multilingual children have the following benefits:

§  More aware, i.e. their sense of awareness is sharper as is their language recognition and perception
§  Better at problem-solving and are capable of separating meaning from ‘form’
§  Quick to pick up languages and display enhanced basic skills – reading, writing, communicating with others
§  Make better communicators
§  Develop a larger vocabulary bank over the years
§  Awareness of languages and its complexities is higher
§  Enhanced spatial abilities along with higher verbal abilities
§  Display enhanced cognitive flexibilities
§  Highly improved critical thinking abilities and the ability to gain multiple perspectives
§  Higher tolerance and easy acceptance towards different cultures, race, people etc.
§  Increased vocational career opportunities in a global market
§  Higher self-confidence and self-esteem

Finally, being multilingual offers children a more comprehensive view of the world, not restricting with a unique outlook or self and others.

This post was initially published on You can read it in Multilingual and Loving it!


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