Is Billingualism always best?

If someone has the opportunity to teach their child more than one language, from birth or in childhood, at least, should one always do so? I am unusual among my friends in even questioning this. Everybody I know who is billingual is teaching their ‘other’ (ie non-English) language to their child from birth on the understanding that they will learn English at school, out in the community with everybody else. I have the opportunity to teach Anya Portuguese, alongside English (and later perhaps Cantonese… and even Spanish) and yet I find myself hesitating.

First, lets get this straight: I totally want Anya to be bilingual and it is very important to me that she gets a chance to learn Portuguese (her mother’s tongue). However, the bit I waiver on is whether she should learn both languages concurrently or consecutively. I learned one then the other. Many of the people I know, from my generation, who are bilingual learned in this same way: first they learn one language and then the other is introduced some years later, after the first is fully absorbed. The second language was usually learned through full immersion (in a country where they speak it) and still in childhood (before the age of 7 in all the cases I am thinking). All of us came out fluent in both languages.

Now, this younger generation is mostly, it seems, learning two (or more) languages simultaneously. It stands to reason. In my time it was common that people were learning the language of their parents and, if their parents moved, they would learn the language of the country they settled in. Now, those kids of foreign tongues are growing up and marrying locals. So you get two languages in one household.

Well, of course, this is a thumbnail sketch. There have always been mixed couples and, in fact, my parents were one such couple. Still it was that I learned English first in America (and my dad spoke English with me then, too) and then I learned Portuguese when I arrived in Portugal, age 6 by going to school there and having lots of Portuguese friends. My mom kept my English alive by speaking with me in English only, always (to the detriment of developing her own Portuguese even, maybe). I am lucky… blessed and grateful. But, as a generalisation, it seems most of the bilinguals I know of my age or there about learned one language at home (with ‘foreign’/immigrant parents) and then another (the local language) at school.

Today, it seems many kids are learning both right from the very start, to the point that even at home there is often more than one language spoken. It is common nowadays.

I have read the research. They say kids can easily absorb seven languages and keep them distinct in their brains. Fantastic stuff, a human brain. And still I feel… cautious, shall we say. There is this effect, called semi-lingualism, which can happen. It occurs to only a very small minority of kids, for sure, but it is basically when neither of the languages introduced get properly developed and their overall communication skills get stunted. It is hypothesised that there are signs that the child is struggling and that with the right help these cases could be averted… and still, I am fearful of getting it wrong.

Why does this worry me? Well, when I was growing up I knew someone who was very slow. She spoke slowly and it seemed she thought slowly too. Often (anecdotally, really) people said it was because she had been made to learn two languages from too young. Okay, I know, chances are that is not why she was ‘slow’ (and by the way, she isn’t stupid, she did fine in school – not brilliantly, but fine). But the association between a kind of forced-early-bilingualism and ‘slowness’ was forged in my brain. I think sometimes when you absorb these notions as a child they are hard to shake. Even after reading studies that said the vast majority of kids did just fine with two languages (as long as you create very strong boundaries around them which you keep to very consistently, e.g.: one parent, one language or one language at school, one at home) I still found myself irrationally scared of teaching my child two languages at once.

It is complicated by the fact that K, my hubby, doesn’t speak Portuguese. If he did, we wouldn’t be having this… err… blog. Then we would speak Portuguese at home and, in time, Anya would learn English at school and with friends. But like this, it is just weird. Anya and I would be having conversations that K just can’t participate in. It is like we are talking a secret language. And he of course could do the same and teach Anya Cantonese and there would be three languages in one household and we could all talk behind each other’s back in our own home!!! It is not right, I tell you.

And still, somehow, I have recently started talking to Anya in Portuguese. Now I have got to stick with it and, so the experts say, I will have to be consistent and make sure I only speak Portuguese with her – no going backwards and forwards because that is the stuff that really confuses kids.

It feels right. I parked my brain. Enough with the going round in circles on this, it is time to pick a route and stick with it. I am going the way that feels best. Wish me luck!


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