Being multilingual in today’s world is a definite advantage. Does that mean every child should speak at least 2 – 3 languages?
Why should I raise a multilingual child? This is a question frequently asked by parents – both in India and around the globe.
On the other hand, the NEP 2020 has removed the imposition of language until grade 5. That means a child will learn just one language at school until he attains age 5. Moreover, this language will not necessarily be English.
So, Should you raise a multilingual child?
Well, in a country like India, children become multilingual by default. Let’s see … they learn a minimum of two – and often three – 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, day-care and more.
Here’s an example from real life. There was this little boy who once came home and said to Momma, “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 not just true of India. In the US for instance, languages like French and Spanish are taught in school. Being a multicultural country, the chances that an incident similar to the one described above could occur are fair if not great. Children learn faster than adults. Children learn by repetition and association. So for instance if they heard the French word “eau” frequently and associated it with water, they will learn the meaning of the word.
Children have multiple opportunities to hear different languages spoken including school, home, friends parents of friends, day care – to name but a few. So at a very minimum every child knows two languages – perhaps more by the time he is 5 years of age.
The question then is not whether a child is capable of learning multiple languages but whether you should teach your child several languages. Here are a few reasons why this may be beneficial.
In the recent years, incidence of inter-caste marriages in India 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 and find their way wherever they go – at least most places. Moreover, speaking the local language like a native has many more advantages. For instance you will not readily be identified as a tourist or outsider which means you will be treated like a local. Consequently you stand less chance of being gypped. Its also a great advantage during negotiations. If for example the choice of whom to depute to Germany narrows down to you and your colleague with everything else being equal, your fluency in German could tip the balance.
Even if you don’t get deputed – or don’t want to get deputed – overseas, being multilingual can open up many local work opportunities for you. You could consider working as a translator, transcriber, or interpreter at an embassy or for tourists visiting your country.
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 speaks only Hindi? 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 possible 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. The point is that though you may speak the language fluently, you may not necessarily learn the accent, 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
Should you or should you not raise a multilingual child? The simple 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!