Tag Archives: languages

Code switching: benefit or curse?

Code switching is a term widely used by linguists to denote the use of more than one language in conversation.  My children are already adept code switchers: they will start a sentence in English, finish it in Romanian and throw in a few Greek words too for good measure.  I used to think (and linguists in the 50s and 60s agreed with me) that this was a substandard use of language, that it makes children have a ‘smattering of everything, mastery of none’.

Lately, however, I have started to see cultural code-switching as something much more positive.  This is the ability to change smoothly from one range of cultural behaviours to another – in essence, being able to operate in multiple environments and adapt to different audiences and expectations.  A recent article in People Management referred to it in the leadership context as a ‘seamless gear change’.

Note: we are not talking about lack of authenticity here nor about putting on masks to please all and sundry. Instead, we are talking about someone who is comfortable with multiple languages, cultures, leadership styles, ways of thinking and can therefore act as a bridge and translator between the different points of view.  Yes, we may have a default ‘vision of the world’ or a preferred operating style, but the greatest leaders will have a wider repertoire of interpretations and behaviours to fall back upon.

There is one danger here, though.  That people will say: ‘We do not know what this person stands for.  He or she is not consistent. S/he is a slippery customer.  We cannot reduce him or her to just three keywords. S/he is a bit too different…’  And no culture will want to claim you as their own.  Unless you are Mesut Oezil, in which case they will be fighting over you.

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How to Raise Multilingual Kids

This continues my musings from last week. 

Despite some misgivings about which language to speak with my children on a day-to-day basis, I have no doubts at all that it is hugely beneficial for them to grow up with more than one language.  So here is a quick summary of the top ten tips that I have learnt from parents, educators, linguists and children too about growing up with many languages.

1)  Speak your mothertongue with them from the start (preferably even during pregnancy)

2) If you aren’t fluent in a foreign language, don’t give up – just build a good support system around yourself.  There are so many resources out there (books, DVDs, CDs, games, neighbours and babysitters) – use them creatively.

3) It doesn’t have to be expensive – many things are available from the library.  You can also do online skillswaps – there are plenty of language classes available in exchange for other skills.

4) There is no single right way to do it – each child, each family, each situation is different.  Find what works best for you.

5) Don’t be intimidated by the science – if you have the willpower and the motivation, you can do it.

6) Motivation is more important than natural talent – any child can learn an additional language if they are exposed to it early enough and if it’s fun enough.

7) Consistency is hard – there are so many reasons to give up, but persevere even when you get discouraged.

8) Confusion is normal – children will throw in words from different languages, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know the difference.

9) It’s never too late – yes, it does help to start as early as possible, but you can learn a language really well even later in life (you will just have to work harder at it).

10) Enjoy the journey – relax!  Even if your child doesn’t become perfectly bilingual, they will still have a passive language base that they can reactivate and improve at any stage in life.

What experiences have you had in growing up multilingual or raising your children multilingually?  Are there any other top tips you would like to add?

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Speak to me…

My four-year-old said the wrong thing again to me today.  No, he didn’t swear or forget to say please or call  me ‘Egyptian Mummy’  (which is his favourite nickname for me at the moment).  He just said: ‘Can I use blue to colour this in?’  But what upset me was that he said it in English.   Although I was the only other person in the room.  And he knew all of the words above in Romanian.

Since the birth of my older son we have tried to be consistent:  I speak Romanian to the children, my husband speaks Greek and, even when we are all having dinner together, there are three languages going on around the table at any time.  (My husband and I speak English to each other and if the children share a story with both of us simultaneously, they will say it in English too).  On the whole, the strategy has worked well, and the children speak all three languages reasonably fluently.  Recently, however, they have taken to speaking English not only among themselves (which was to be expected), but also to us the parents.

I grew up in a trilingual environment myself, so I thought I had it sussed, but I find myself surprisingly unrelaxed about the whole thing.  I don’t want the children or us to get lazy and revert back to English, because it will be so hard for them to communicate with their relatives and grandparents in Greece and Romania.  I also want them to have the flexibility to live and work in these countries should they choose to do so at some point in the future.  I want them to be able to engage with other cultures at a deeper level, as you can do when you speak other languages.

But at the same time, I fear I may be doing them a disservice.  That, by insisting so much on speaking Romanian, I am actually putting them off using this language.  That, by refusing to speak English except for the purposes of homework, I am putting my son at a disadvantage, not building his vocabulary, not conveying all the tricky nuances of the English language, and – saddest of all – not sharing with him my love of the English language.

Because, if I am honest, it is English that is the language of my heart, even if it is not officially my mother tongue.  I live, dream and write in English;  I clothe my thoughts and feelings in English words.  I have taught English to hundreds of other children… but am not teaching it to mine.  My head tells me it is the sensible choice.  While they are living here in the UK, English will be their dominant language anyway, and I can always explain the mysteries of punctuation and grammar to them.

But my heart is always a little torn when they say something in English and I reply to them: ‘Speak to me in Romanian, please…’

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