Raising your kids to be multilingual can be incredibly useful for the future – but what are the problems of multilingualism? More and more families are immigrating & emigrating all over the globe, and multilingualism can be incredibly useful when moving between countries, maintaining family connections or pursuing higher education. Anna Pujol-Mazzini is trilingual, born to an Italian mother and French father. Below she recounts a list of the disadvantages of multilingualism she faced growing up as a multilingual child every day.
There are pros and cons for children who grow up in bilingual or multilingual households.
According to research from the US government, the benefits of multilingualism can be sociocultural, cognitive, educational, and economic.
Sociocultural. Multilingualism helps people understand other cultures, increase empathy, and promote global awareness about racial and cross-group issues and relationships.
Cognitive. Multilingualism promotes mental flexibility, may delay cognitive decline as you age, and your intellectual flexibility increases
Educational. Multilingualism helps students to be successful in dual-language programmes, improves their learning outcomes, leads to creativity and supports their ability to learn even more languages in the future.
Economic. Multilingualism helps to promote greater job and business opportunities and can often raise occupational status if language skills are required by an employer.
For many people growing up multilingual, or hoping to raise their kids to be so, there are many problems of multilingualism.
Many people might not deem these important or impactful, but that’s not true; especially since it tends to affect young children the most as they grow.
When someone who speaks multiple languages reveals that they can do so, people tend to gather round and ask questions: “How do you say, Hello my name is … in German?”, “How do you say ice-cream in Italian?”, followed by “oohs” and “aahs” in unison. This can be fun at times, but after a while it can feel like you’re a rare specimen constantly put on the spot to say something “cool” or “interesting” instead of wanting to truly learn a new language.
Children in bilingual and multilingual families tend to be corrected by their parents in a different language when they do something bad. This can be embarrassing for many children because they are aware that others know that they are getting in trouble when their parents switch languages in certain situations. The language may be different, but the tone of voice and facial expression can be enough to call to attention a child’s behaviour to other people as well.
From personal experience, trying to text my family in Italian can be a very frustrating aspect of multilingualism since some words can get lost in translation and become confusing for people both sending and receiving a text. So, the straightforward phrase: “Buongiorno. Oggi devo andare al mercato e dope ci possiamo incontrare al ristorante verso le sette!” This translates to: “Hello. Today I have to go to the market and after we can meet at a restaurant at seven” This can sound OK to some people, but to others, especially if you must text your boss or co-workers, it can sound informal and grammatically incorrect.
A café menu? A line in the newest blockbuster film? Lyrics to that hit on the radio? People tend to forget that google translate exists when they know that you can speak the local language that they aren’t familiar with. This can be fun at first, but then people can feel as if they are being just used for their language ability, and even their own café experience, movie time and song filled car rides can be interrupted by constant questions about words and translations.
If you begin to speak a foreign language from a young age, an accent tends to build up. So much so you may sound like a native speaker. So, when people like Anna tells Italian people that she’s also French, they tend to smile and say: “No you’re not”. An awkward silence then ensues where you have to prove your mixed origins. “See, I can speak French! I was born in France! Look at my passport! Do you believe me now?” It can be tiring having to defend you own identity just because you have the ability to speak multiple languages.
From Anna’s experience, when she comes back to Italy after living in the UK for school, watching TV can become a struggle. You see, the actors’ lips are moving and trying to convey English words, but they are inexplicably speaking Italian. It can be a distraction, having to subconsciously be reading and watching TV in English and Italian.
Speaking multiple languages can be a very cool and useful skill to have, but no matter how many languages you may be able to speak and how fluent you have become, you may mess up every once in a while. You might invent you own words and translations and even alter the pronunciation. Your friends may not know what you are doing, but if a native speaker hears you, they might look at you weird and make fun of your ability to speak your second language.
Trying to make friends from your various countries of origin, who are also multilingual, can be tricky. It’s possible that none of them share a common language like English, which can be hard when it comes to communicating, hanging out or organising large friend group outings.
After a year of studying in the UK, Anna went back to Italy for Christmas. By then, accustomed to British politeness, whenever someone brushed past, she would turn around and say “sorry”! Her Italian friends would quickly turn around and say, “Stop showing off just because you can speak another language”. This situation can cause embarrassment and wanting to suppress one language you may know. Like many things, language can become a part of one’s identity, and is much more than just a skill or talent that someone “shows off”.
Speaking two languages on a regular basis means you must constantly focus on what you’re saying and how you are saying too. But sometimes, without realising, you start a sentence and finish it in Italiano. This is called code switching, and if someone is not aware of its existence, the way you speak can seem informal and incorrect.
Families relocating across the world will constantly face challenges and triumphs, and their children will grow up experiencing the issues and challenges of multilingualism. It is up to their parents and their mindset to see how they can celebrate their newly found language while still being able to form their own identity.
A similar article appeared in The Local newspaper. You can access the original article here.