Ah the joys of multilingualism! I will never forget the day one of my students answered the question: ‘where are you from?’ He was a very blond little boy, whose mother was English and father was Swedish. They spoke to him in Swedish and English at home. This little boy spoke English at school and learnt Mandarin as a second language. His nanny was Malaysian and spoke to him in Malay. His best friend was Korean and they sometimes communicated in Korean. When asked ‘where are you from?’, this little boy answered: ‘I’m from Singapore!’ After some initial confusion and a little investigating, I discovered he was born in Singapore, had lived there for 2 years before moving to Vietnam and then to Malaysia. He identified as a Singaporean more than as Swedish or British as he had never lived in either country.
This is just one of many examples international school teachers come across during their career. In an increasingly globalized world, more and more families are of mixed origins and travel or live abroad. Their children are typically referred to as ‘third culture kids’ and have the undeniable advantage of being raised in multiple languages as well as being exposed to a variety of cultures, religions and beliefs.
While the advantages of such a lifestyle are numerous and we know that children raised in these conditions can become more open minded, develop empathy and have a better understanding of the world around them, the struggles they sometimes face are less widely discussed. The challenges brought on by multilinguality are nevertheless very real for parents and educators of third culture children, or even simply of children attending an international school in their own country.
There are a variety of multilingual scenarios but the most common will be when a child comes from one country, lives in another and is educated in yet another language than the one of their host country. Think for example about a Korean child living in Brazil and attending a British school. They are constantly exposed to three very different languages on a daily basis. Those languages have different roots, sometimes use a different alphabet, often have different tones and accents, and always follow a different set of linguistic rules. This can be a lot to take in for any child (or adult!) and is sometimes very overwhelming in the early stages of learning. Studies show that children who were exposed to multiple languages during childhood will find benefits in linguistics later on in life, but the steps to get to that multilingual mastery aren’t always easy.
Parents and teachers can support multilingual children in this fascinating learning process, even when they themselves might not speak all the languages their child or student is learning. Visual aids, regular exposure to high quality language, immersion through playdates and other socio-cultural activities, are all ways in which we can help our little global citizens. Most importantly, patience and understanding are what will support those children above anything else. Understanding how they process each language and giving them all the time they need to express themselves is key to educating and raising confident international communicators.
Please join our Parent Workshop on Tuesday 23rd November at 9am, in which we will discuss this topic in more detail. The link will be shared with all BCB parents soon.