Liz Szalai is a traveller, expat who speaks three languages and has a background in psychology. She writes for immigrationnews.co.uk. This is a media platform that helps to raise awareness about migrant injustices and news around the world and helps people to get immigration advice. In this article Liz shares her experience of being multilingual and raising a multilingual child.
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My mother tongue is Hungarian, a language spoken by approximately 10 million people, a language one of the most difficult to learn, unique and beautiful.
I studied English and German in high school, but German got ruled out, I cannot speak it anymore. I probably have a secret compartment in my brain with all that knowledge in a deep sleep.
English became my most spoken language when I lived in London for almost ten years. And my third language, the newest addition, is Spanish.
Our introduction happened through brief language courses but we became better friends during my backpacking trip in Mexico and Central-America.
I have been living in Panama for two years; I use my three languages simultaneously. This doesn’t always go smoothly, those who are fellow bilinguals, trilinguals or multilinguals know that feeling when you are trying to say a word and it disappears in a black hole. Or to make it more fun appears in one of the other languages.
How the multilingual brain works
Scientists have studied multilingual brains to see how speaking more languages changes our grey matter. Multilingualism affects our cognitive skills.
Researches shown that multilingual people may have better problem solving and enhanced inhibition skills than monolingual peers, this helps them to learn faster.
Learning and speaking new languages also helps to delay dementia or Alzheimer’s. A bilingual/multilingual person has different neurological processing as the linguistic part of the brain works even when language is not involved.
People with multilingual brains tend to be more perceptive, their skill helps to focus on relevant information. Overall, it makes our brain more flexible, and also supports coordinating in social settings.
Ups and downs of multilingualism
Besides the benefits I mentioned above, in my experience being multilingual has its ups and downs.
I believe you can only really get to know a culture if you speak/understand their language (at least some words).
During my travels, I learned a great deal about the places I visited, from people I got to know. Even though my Spanish was far from fluent in the beginning, it helped a lot to understand the language.
As it happens, understanding always comes first, speaking really depends on the person’s confidence.
The wide range of topics you can cover with little expressive language surprised me. Apart from the obvious travel tips, I had conversations about indigenous traditions, social and political topics, cross-cultural issues and beyond.
People open up to you more when you speak their language, it gives them confidence in you. It feels like they open a door to you to enter their culture.
One of the hardest things for me was to express myself in my second (and now third language) in a way that my personality would come through. Or that my words and expressions would mean the same.
This is complicated though, details like sense of humour are very cultural. I found, for example, that my Hungarian sarcasm sits well with English (especially British English). However, in other countries I visited, people gave me weird looks when I said the same (supposedly) funny words.
Referencing is another thing that can be very specific to culture.
When I have conversations with my friends from home, they understand me as no-one does. And sometimes I have to explain my references to them about my life abroad. Because of this, I feel that people who don’t speak my first language, never know me the way the people speaking my language do.
A funny observation about mistakes. A common mistake that people learning a foreign language make is to apply the grammar or vocabulary of their mother tongue in their second, third language.
However, I noticed with great annoyance that I made mistakes speaking in my first language in the same manner. As an example, we were talking about LGBTQ issues with my Hungarian friends, and I used the expression ‘straight men’.
In Hungarian ‘straight’ is not used to determine sexual orientation, just for direction or shape, etc. My friends looked at me laughing, they understood where I’m coming from but it was an interesting moment.
As I wasn’t using my mother tongue on a regular basis in London, English took over! These days I pay more attention to details, but I think fellow multilinguals can relate to the fear of losing our first language.
Milestones of becoming multilingual
I have three personal milestones related to new languages.
The first one is to dream in the language. Interestingly, now if I dream about people from Panama, I dream in Spanish sometimes, but in other situations not yet, probably because I don’t use Spanish all day. It was around the 3rd year living in London when my dreams changed to English, except if they were located in Hungary.
The second one is to follow simultaneous conversations.
Now that’s a toughie. I remember sitting in a pub in London where all my colleagues were speaking at the same time and I just sat there quietly. My poor brain was spinning around, trying to make sense of all. And then, eventually, it all started to make sense, and I began to understand everything, including conversations in the background.
In Spanish I still have to pay attention. When there are a few people involved in the conversation, if someone doesn’t call my name when they speak to me, I might not respond.
And the third one is to make word-jokes or language-related jokes. The Brits are champions in that, and I had excellent teachers helping me master it. In Spanish I had a few attempts but again, cultural difference intervened, ‘despatito’ (from slow ‘despacio’ ducks ‘patitos’) was only funny in my head.
How do I raise a trilingual baby?
I started learning English when I was 8 years old, and Spanish as an adult. There’s a huge difference though between learning languages in school or growing up being exposed to more than one language.
International couples and expats always have a question in mind about the languages they use at home or in public. It is more straightforward with two, but if three languages are involved, things can get a bit complicated.
When I found out I was pregnant, I almost immediately thought, “Yay, my baby will speak three languages!” Then I started to read about trilingual children, multilingual families, and I realized that this awesome thing won’t come without obstacles, but (according to others) totally worth it.
In our case my boy has a Hungarian mother, a Panamanian father and wider family, and his parents mainly speak in English between each other.
As I am the only source of Hungarian, I am very careful to expose him to the language as much as I can… but let’s not get ahead of myself.
Which strategies can parents use to raise their baby multilingual?
The two main strategies raising trilingual children are the One Person One Language approach and the Minority Language at home strategy. Because my partner doesn’t speak Hungarian, the second option wasn’t available to us (unless we go with English as a minority language, but that would mean losing Hungarian), so we decided to try the OPOL strategy.
I met families and I have some friends who have multilingual family background. As the question of raising trilingual children arose, I asked them to share their experiences.
Well, as it goes with everything in raising children, everyone has their own way.
One mum suggested I should be very strict with the OPOL. She suggested when the baby speaks, only respond to him if he speaks Hungarian to me.
Others recommended a more relaxed approach.
The one thing everyone agreed on is exposure. Conversations, singing, stories, various activities are the right way to go.
My friend’s daughter enjoys baking with a grandma who speaks the minority language, and she recalls the words of baking in that language.
As always, understanding comes before speaking. Holidays with the grandmas, friends who speak the same languages are all very helpful to develop the speaking skills.
The more we expose the child to a language, the more they will understand and later, speak. And eventually, they will get there.
One of the humps on the road to be trilingual is the child’s confidence about language. If they speak a minority language at home, they might feel shy to speak it in public.
This also brings the question of what language to speak to the baby in public.
I was determined to only speak Hungarian, but it turned out to be tricky in social situations. For example, when we are together with his great-grandma or grandparents, I often switch to Spanish, as I want them to be involved in the conversation. Sometimes I use both languages.
I think this will clear up more when my child starts speaking. But I never want him to be ridiculed or feel ashamed to speak a different language.
One of the biggest plus of raising your child trilingual is the social/emotional impact.
As I mentioned before, I believe one can only know a culture if they speak the language.
To understand both grandmas, to appreciate the culture of both parents and the language of the country where they live in, speaking all the languages is important. This makes kids more acceptive, more flexible towards cultures, and makes bonding with the family easier (even if they are far away).
I have to get back to you when my baby learns to talk. Right now he understands all three languages; he responds to simple requests and reacts to word exchanges.
I cannot wait when we will visit my family and expose him to his mother tongue.
Until then I sing songs to him that my mum used to sing, I read books I brought from Hungary and keep hoping his first words will be in Hungarian.
You might find useful
- 10 Ways Living Abroad Gives Children A Better Start In Life – how living abroad can benefit your children;
- Overcoming The Main Challenges Of Living Abroad – how to adapt to your new country and make it home;
- Visit our home page for a comprehensive range of Living Abroad guides.