Being multilingual in today’s world is a definite advantage. Does that mean we should all raise a multilingual child?
Hmm… two weeks. Well last weekend was kinda hectic. Even so I did sit with my word and keyboard but drew a blank.
This week though, I came across an interesting question. Why should I raise a multilingual child? Well, in a country like India, children become multilingual by default. Let’s see … they learn a minimum of two languages in school. The third is the one they hear and speak at home. Then there are those that they pick up at their friends’ homes, baby-sitting and more. I recall this friend whose son would come and say “Mama Jol Khobe” (mom I want water) to her and she could not for the life of her understand what he meant – that is until she spoke to the baby sitter (who was a Bengali) about it!
This is true not only of India but also of several other countries. Children learn quicker than adults and they learn language from their friends too. So at a very minimum every child knows two languages – perhaps more by the time he is 5 years of age.
That said if you would like to make a conscious effort to raise a multilingual child, by all means do so. There are several advantages to doing this.
In the recent years, incidence of inter-caste marriages has risen. In such families, children either learn the language of both sides or neither of them. The ability to speak the community language endears one to those within the family and extended family. Therefore learning both languages is a definite advantage.
Also children also develop a sense of security which is associated with the language. For example a child from a Bengali family will feel more comfortable talking in Bengali with a stranger than if he were speaking in English or Hindi with this same stranger.
Children who speak several languages are rarely at a loss when travelling. They find it easy to communicate with locals wherever they go – at least most places.
Apart from translation, being multilingual means better opportunities in your chosen profession – particularly if you know a few foreign languages. In a country like India where 22 different languages are spoken in more than 700 dialects, knowing several Indian languages opens up opportunities for promotions and posting to several Indian states. It also makes life easier at work if you can communicate fluently in the language of your boss or colleagues.
Better at Academics
Children who can speak a number of languages fare better at reasoning and other academic skills. It also improves the reading and creative writing skills of the child. This fact has been scientifically proven.
The Bad of being Multilingual
Despite the advantages, not all is hunky-dory with multi-linguals. If you have the ability to speak several languages you may likely mix up words and phrases and this can make you the butt of many a joke. For example imagine saying “Let’s have one for the road” to a friend who does not speak English? What would you say? “Raste ke liye ek le lo”? The word mitthu in Gujarati means salty. The same word in Marathi / Hindi means parrot!
If you know several languages and you find yourself at a loss for words, it is likely you will recall the perfect word for whatever you want to say – not in the language in which you are speaking at that time but in a different language. As a born and bred Indian, would you say flour or aata when speaking to a non-Hindi speaking person in English?
When you speak several languages it is possible you may not fit in with any linguistic group. People who speak Gujarati will always detect an English accent in your speech. Bengali’s will consider your speech “different” from theirs. What I am trying to say here is that though you may speak the language fluently, you may not necessarily catch the right tone or strike the right attitude when speaking. Also as I said earlier, words from other languages you know may slip in. As a result, you may end up being a stranger in all groups.
So the Question Remains
Well then should you or should you not raise a multilingual child? My answer to this is, take them as they come. Some kids have a natural aptitude for picking up languages and dialects while others do not. If your child shows a propensity for languages, by all means encourage him to learn several. If on the other hand he struggles with those he must learn – and I don’t mean just at school – then leave well enough alone. They’ll manage fine – if they have to – with sign language and a few basic words.
Every child is unique and has a unique talent. What we as parents ought to do is to identify this talent and encourage it. Rather than pushing the child into something that he does not find appealing, show him your support in whatever he would like to do – and if this is language then so be it!