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Today’s post comes from Irina – or Iri as Italians call her and she likes it better. Born in Transnistria, at 14 Irina moved to sunny Italy here she discovered her passion for foreign languages. Currently she´s working at bab.la – a free online platform for language lovers and an online community of global citizens.
In a survey conducted by the European Commission in 2006, 56% of respondents reported being able to speak in a language other than their mother tongue.
But have you ever thought about how and why people become bilingual and why so many researchers say that the brain of a bilingual person is sharper and more focused? It could seem obvious that having parents who speak at least two languages would instantly help their children to become bilingual.
However, it is not that simple. For instance, I was born to parents with different nationalities and right now I can speak four languages fluently. While my cousin, whose parents are also of two different nationalities, can speak only one language fluently and a second one at a beginner level, and it is not even a language which they speak at home.
First of all, someone can normally be bilingual if he or she was born in a certain place or from bilingual parents. You will wonder, but there are many places where people speak more than one language.
Through my own personal experience I have gotten to know some very multicultural and linguistically liminal places, such as the disputed Crimea region, Italian Trentino-Südtirol region, towns and villages at the borders of almost any country and of course Transnistria, my homeland.
Sometimes politically and culturally speaking places like these are not seen in the best light. Often disputed though they are, these areas are a great source of both linguistic abundance and multicultural people.
Nevertheless, one must be born in such a place to be “lucky” enough to learn at least two languages (sometimes even more!). If these areas gains cultural independence, linguistic independence often follows a few years behind. This can mean freedom to speak more languages or even the prohibition of previously shared ones.
Anyway, if one has bilingual parents, it is not just their problem to teach their child two languages, it is also about how children perceive languages. Actually, there aren’t many research-based guidelines about learning a language in your very early years and the best strategies for producing a happily bilingual child.
A few years ago researchers at the University of Washington compared monolingual infants to bilingual ones by measuring electrical brain responses. They discovered that by speaking to a child in two languages from birth, after 10 or 12 months a child develops a differentiation in phonetic sounds.
But it is a general study and sometimes it can’t be applied to every family or individual. I know that my cousin struggled with speaking until he was 3 years old because his parents spoke to him in two different languages from a young age and apparently he couldn’t tell them apart. The pediatrician suggested to start talking to him in one language only and it worked, though he didn’t manage to become bilingual.
My experience was a bit different from my cousin’s. My parents have always spoken two languages between them, but with me they spoke only in one language since my birth. My dad argued that he didn’t want his daughter to have a foreign accent, so he didn’t want the second language to influence the first one.
Despite this, I have relatives who speak both languages and I used to spend my summer holidays at my grandparents, where my grandmother started reading fairytales in the second language to me. I believe this is the main secret: trying to introduce to a baby the second language in a way that he or she doesn’t confuse where and how to use it.
Therefore, the second language was associated with fairytales and grandparents for me. Eventually a child will start to differentiate them and understand the differences by themselves, especially when starting school where they use mainly one language. Studying in a school that uses the first language as the main one and teaches the second language to a child is even better.
Another useful tip is never stop practicing. Parents who take their time to practice two languages with their children through playing will achieve their goal to have a bilingual child faster than parents who will simply communicate with their child in everyday life. Watching cartoons in both languages is also very effective, but as long as it doesn’t become the only activity. Interacting with other children in both languages while playing is also another good solution.
For instance, during summer holidays at my grandparents I used to play with children who didn’t speak my first language, so I had to use the second one. Sometimes it is even easier to have friends who speak both languages and it is very likely to find them in multilingual societies. In this case children can practice both languages without the parents’ help.
Last but not least – moving abroad. Until now it is the best resource I managed to find in order to learn foreign languages. However, it is easier to learn a language when you start moving abroad from an early age.
Personally, I moved abroad when I was over the ages of 14 (and it is said to be already too late) and I started studying a third new language. The best tip I can give when moving abroad is to spend time with the locals as much as possible. It is very important if you really want to learn that country’s language.
I noticed that people who were likely to stay within their local communities while living abroad had problems learning a new foreign language, because obviously they didn’t speak or practice it. It could be hard in the beginning, especially if you’re a novice, but it is worth it and locals appreciate your efforts very much. Moreover, since you’re in a foreign country, spending your time with the locals will broaden your cultural background.
To conclude, I would say that any tip would be useless if you’re not a language lover. Being passionate about foreign languages has to be first on your list before starting learning a language. In addition, being open-minded, especially to other cultures, would help you on your path to becoming a polyglot.
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