Language Matters July 2006: Bilingualism and Multilingualism

Dear Language Friend,

Welcome to our July issue on the WHAT, HOW, WHEN, and WHO of languages. We will discuss WHAT bilingualism is all about, HOW to deal with multilingualism WHEN starting to teach your child new languages and WHO the experts are.

Lenka de Graafova, Managing Director. Thanks for reading.


I’ve always been fascinated by languages and the human ability to master two or more of them. Obviously, some people really have a knack for languages and can easily pick up new words, accents and phrases. Unfortunately, not everybody has been gifted with the supernatural force to painlessly absorb a foreign language into the left hemisphere of their brain.

However, would these so called unfortunate ones be more language savvy if their mothers had sung French songs to them in their early years? Would they embrace idioms in seconds and avoid truancy during German language classes if their mothers exposed them to German radio? Would they easily switch between English and Spanish if, as a child, they had been nursed by a Mexican nanny?

Yes, they would. That’s what the experts say: The academic experts as well as the expert-mothers. It’s been proven that children absorb languages really quickly and naturally. If exposed to the right environment, they can understand and speak up to 3 languages by the age of 4. But don’t push it! Trying to teach your child more than 3 languages at once can become quite confusing.

What is Bilingualism all About ?

So what actually are bilingualism and multilingualism? Clever online sources state various definitions; here are two examples:

  • “Using or able to use two languages, especially with equal or nearly equal fluency.”
  • “The ability to communicate naturally and fluently in more than one language in all areas of life”.

Interestingly, two thirds of the world’s population speaks more than one language. Most people acquire bilingualism over the course of their lifetime, through study and travel. But why make such an effort and spend 20 years learning phrases, listening to foreign language media, and feeling nervous before any language test only to realize that it’s beyond your powers to get rid of your accent?

Why not start dreaming in the foreign language of your choice right now?

Well, honestly, it’s too late for you! If you’re over 5 years old, you’ll have to undertake language tests, listen to native speakers and try to cram at least 2,000 words of common lexicon into your brain.

But hey, make it easy for your child – speak to him or her in a foreign language, don’t let English dominate your household, and hire that Mexican or Chinese nanny! Your children will thank you big time once they discover the beauties of the world through travel, without the frustration of language barriers. They will send you a lovely greeting card of Saint Maria from a beautiful church in Mexico, or a note from a temple in Beijing. It will let you breath easy to feel confident in their ability to communicate.

Advantages for Raising a Multilingual Child

So what are the major advantages and tips for raising a multilingual child?

  • Many people recognize that speaking more than one language brings success, better job opportunities, and the flexibility to live, work and travel in various countries. Research shows that learning and using more than one language enhances problem solving skills, cognitive flexibility, logical reasoning as well as creativity and social skills.
  • Since language is a part of culture, bilingual people tend to have a broader cultural understanding and knowledge, higher self-esteem, better social sensitivity, and tolerance.
  • As one of our Vancouver based British readers said:

“I’m teaching my child British English so by the age of 4 he’s able to order a round in the pub, chat up a bird and check the football scores.”

Clearly, language is a part of culture…

Interviews and Tips

To discover more, I consulted experts – parents who have been raising their children bilingually. I’ve included conclusions and tips based on the interviews to inspire you to raise your child bilingual.

Q: Why would you raise your child with more than one language?


  • “For utilitarian purpose – my parents don’t speak English and I desire to share my own culture; it’s a personal experiment – not an easy one!”
  • “It gives you an “edge” in this world to speak more than 1 language (travel, work, etc.).”
  • “My child was born and spent his first 4 years in another country.”

Summary: In order to work and spend time in other countries, to communicate with grandparents, to share culture.
TIP: Speak to your child in a foreign language even if you’re not a native speaker of that language. His progress will be as good as if you were fluent and at certain point, he’ll start correcting you.
Start now. Mañana is too late.

Q: In your experience, what are the advantages and disadvantages of raising a multilingual child, in regards to the child’s life style, social skills, etc.?


  • “Just like in several books I read on the subject, a child is slower in both languages at first (-); however, both languages grow with the child (+).”
  • All advantages – No disadvantages in my mind. The earlier children learn another language, the better it is!!”
  • “I believe that the advantages are more than the disadvantages – it is quite easy to introduce another language to a young child – my son needed a month and a half to get from point zero to complete-sentence production.”

Summary: The language grows with the child, from zero to full bilingualism.
TIP: Send your child to a summer camp in a different country, hire a foreign aupair or locate an immersion school.

Q: Does your child get confused with more than one language?


  • “Not much, but there should be a consistent strategy to help the child; otherwise, confusion is possible.”
  • “Children can mix-up language in the very beginning but if they address their Mum in English and their Dad in French, for instance, there is no confusion possible as they make the “association” of who speaks what… (clever eh!)”
  • “Yes, he gets confused but not when speaking in English, though. He gets confused when he speaks his language of origin.”

Summary: Children can get confused if there is not a consistent language strategy in use. However, if a particular family member is associated with a particular language, confusion is minimal. If immersion in one of the languages is not fully achieved, language skills such as grammar and vocabulary can deteriorate.
TIP: Best is to start speaking to your child right away. The sooner you get going, the better. Children who start later have a harder time with foreign languages. The more interaction the child gets in the different languages, the better.

Q: Does your child have a special relation to one of the spoken languages? Is English his/her preferred language of communication?


  • “During very long stays, my child begins to prefer a language in which she is immersed (English here and Russian in Russia)”
  • “There is always a “preponderant” language and I believe it is the one of the mother (why…of course they spend more time with her when they are younger). But I bet you if it was the Dad “at home”, if the Mum is working (yes it happens…), it would be the opposite then – makes sense. In our case English is the preferred language as it is the one we mostly speak at home + their friends speak English (and school is also a factor).”
  • “His main language of communication is English. He speaks the other language less than 2 hours per day, so eventually it will end up being a “foreign” language to him”.

Summary: Child speaks the language, in which he is immersed the most within a long period of life. The lesser used language usually becomes the ‘second’ language.
TIP: Agree on bilingualism with your partner, set your goals and be consistent. Decide how many languages you want to teach and who will be the dominating personality associated to that particular language. Use your creativity to encourage the minority language: sing together, read books, play games and have fun.

Life Story by a Bilingual Colleague (French/English)

Parents might look at bilingualism in a very different way than the bilingual child does. I asked my bilingual colleague Gabrielle, who has been raised in both French and English, to tell us more about her bilingual life experience:

Welland is a bit of an anomaly in Southern Ontario. It is a concentrated pocket of French in an otherwise English region. The high percentage of French in Welland’s population is the result of the successful mills and steel factories that once drew people here in droves.

Growing up in this small city I had the opportunity to live in a completely bilingual, and sometimes trilingual world. My schooling, up until I went to University, was in French. My father is French, from Timmins, Ontario and my mother, Irish from a small town outside of Dublin. Though I spoke a bit of French with father, the language didn’t really link with me until I met my best friend on the first day of kindergarten. She didn’t speak a word of English so I learned to speak in French in order to play with her. By the time I was in grade I was comfortable switching from one language to another, and able to work very well in all subjects.

Being bilingual has made it infinitely easier for me to pick up other languages, find jobs, and travel. However, there are a few glitches to bilingualism. For example, my spelling and grammar in English were embarrassing when I first started University. I often didn’t know the English words for math or science terms. On the other hand, opportunities to speak French are becoming rarer.

Finally the dynamics of Welland‘s population have switched to being more English. I am lucky to have a father with whom I still speak in French. Working in translation, writing, and French teaching has also helped me to keep French alive.

It is an effort knowing more than one language but it benefits a person’s life in so many ways, from personal relationships to career opportunities. The way I see it, knowing a second language is a favor to yourself, your child and to the people that use it. There is nothing to lose, but a whole world to win.

Top Languages to Teach a Child

Cannot decide on what language to teach your child? Here are some facts that might help you on the decision:

  • French – One of the official languages of Canada: According to two of every three Canadians, living in a country with two official languages is a defining factor of being Canadian.
  • Chinese – The Language of Vancouver: One-fifth of Vancouver’s residents speak Chinese. Vancouver has one of the largest Chinese populations in North America.
  • Spanish – The Second Most Spoken Language in the World: Hispanics are a growing force, especially in the US, and Spanish speakers represent one of the biggest consumer markets.