As you probably know, there are some topics I never tire of, the first being bilingualism and language acquisition, and the second, cultural identity and clashes. I could read and write about those forever, and probably will, given the fact that I’ve chosen to change my cultural surroundings from time to time.
Anyway, I just found myself responding to a FB link to a NY Times article about the effect of bilingualism on the brain. Someone responded to the link by saying they didn’t understand why some people choose not to pass their language on to their children, and instead just speak the language of the country they were living in, thereby missing the opportunity to give a very valuable gift to their offspring. Of course I had to respond:
It’s much easier not to [speak another language at home], that’s why people don’t do it. It takes tremendous effort and time. People don’t realize just how much, it’s not as easy and natural as it sounds. And yet it is when you choose to do it. I’ve seen it so many times amongst friends, the parents say “It’s so complicated”,”my child understands but will only speak the one language, so what’s the point”, “I don’t want them to be different”, “other people might be offended” etc. Plenty of excuses, and often, yes, it’s extremely difficult (both parents work, for example, and the children aren’t exposed to both languages in equal measure, or simply refuse to speak more than one language). Having done it from the start with my children, I can totally see how easy it would have been to just stick to one language, the one you’re surrounded by. You need to invest a lot of time, perseverance and patience. It is NOT easy. But it is the most rewarding thing ever, and I can’t imagine what it would be like not to have done it. For me it was simply a horrible thought to have children who couldn’t understand their grandparents, grandparents who had to speak a foreign language to communicate. And I wanted to be able to have a conversation in my language! So there were no doubts in my mind that it would be the right thing, and once I made the decision, it was the most natural thing. And I’ve been lucky to have two chatterboxes as daughters, who simply love to talk, never refused to speak their non-native language, and never have had any inhibitions, happily chatting away in English and German, whatever the situation requires, even surrounded by adults they don’t know. Yes, sometimes the grammar is all over the place, yes, there’s laziness and the sentences get a bit jumbled up, yes we need to switch between languages sometimes (homework, for example). But the results are amazing, and funny, and unique, so I can only encourage people to do it if they can. But I think everybody has to make up their own rules as to how to do it. I know people who strictly only ever speak their own native language to their children, without exceptions, but that doesn’t work for everybody. In our family, it works because we’re quite easygoing about it. I don’t criticize mistakes, and I switch from one language to the other regularly because it comes more naturally, or we do homework or whatever. But we embrace language, and I make sure we’re all exposed to both languages, and we read books, listen to CDs, and watch movies in both languages. It’s hard work, it requires a lot of time, and it can be exasperating, but the moment my older daughter read a German book to her sister at bedtime (I had had no idea at that point that she could read German) made me realize just how great this is. Anyway, I’m starting to ramble now – I just felt I had to contribute from my own experience! Go and do it if you’re lucky enough to have more than language going on!!!
And now, taking this even further, I also think that speaking two or more languages on a native speaker level brings a host of further knowledge and understanding, not only of a language, but also of different cultures and different values and different perspectives on things. Moving to the UK when I was in my twenties, and to the USA in my thirties has taught me so much more than just the different languages (and yes, as I’ve said before, US English and British English are two different languages, just as Americans and Britons have completely different sets of values and behaviour). This understanding can only be acquired by living in a country, and I’m very grateful that I’ve been given this opportunity more than once! S found an article the other day about the cultural clashes between Brits and Germans, which I felt I should have written. So true!
Anyway – happy reading.