Top ten problems of growing up multilingual

There are growing amounts of families immigrating all over the globe, many of whom are bringing along children who will more be growing up multilingual This skill can be very useful and impressive especially when the time comes to travel to another country, visit family or beginning their higher education.

Growing up multilingual


There are both pros and cons for children who grow up in bilingual or multilingual households. Benefits can be sociocultural, cognitive, educational, and economic. From a sociocultural aspect, multilingualism helps people understand other cultures, increases empathy, and promotes global awareness about racial and cross-group issues and relationships. In the cognitive aspect, multilingualism promotes mental flexibility, may delay cognitive decline as you age, and your intellectual flexibility increases. Multilingualism in education can help 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. Lastly, from an economical point of view, multilingualism helps to promote greater job and business opportunities and can often raise occupational status if language skills are required by an employer.

Growing up multilingual

But some problems can also arise in the process of growing up multilingual  that not many people would deem important or impactful, but that is not true; especially since it tends to affect young children the most as they grow.

Anna Pujol-Mazzini, is trilingual daughter and born to an Italian mother and French father.

Anna recounts some of the problems that she faced growing up as a multilingual child every day. From the annoyance of having her phone auto-correct to being constantly used as a human google translator.

  1. “Say something in XYZ language”

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.

  1. Language change to reprimand bad behaviour

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.

  1. Being auto corrected in the wrong language on your phone

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 setter!” 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 comprehendible to some people, but to others, especially if you must text your boss or co-workers, it can sound informal and grammatically incorrect.

  1. Being used as human google translator

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.

  1. Having to prove your nationality

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.

  1. Badly dubbed movies

From Anna’s experience, when she comes back to Italy after living in the UK for school, watching T.V 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 T.V in English and Italian.

  1. Having your language laughed at

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.

  1. Trying to make friends

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.

  1. Being called a “show off”

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”.

  1. Mixing up Languages

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 immigrating across the world will constantly face challenges and triumphs, and their children will grow up experiencing the pros and cons of a multilingual life. 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.

Read our article on how bilinguals think differently depending on their language

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