growing up bilingual

I was thinking the other day how Ireland has become more globalised and ‘open’ to other nations since we moved here some ten years ago.  When we just arrived in Ireland people would stare at you if you spoke something else than English.  These days most people won’t bat an eyelid when they hear you speak another language to your children and walking the streets of any city or town in Ireland is proof of that.  You’ll hear a wide variety languages:  Polish, Slovakish, different African languages, French, Spanish Portuguese and many more.  Ok they will still realise I am not Irish with my accent. But that has its advantages as well!

And I suppose more and more children grow up bilingual and even multilingual in Ireland as the country’s borders opened up to other countries joining the EU over the years. This is taking place against the background where bilinguals and multilinguals actually outnumber people speaking only one language in the world’s population.  Recent studies showed that between 60 – 75 per cent of the world’s population is bilingual. Wow!

Speaking about experience I can tell you that keeping the second language “alive” in an English speaking country, where most people are monolingual, is hard work.  But what is the option, if you want to raise bilingual children because your kids need to be able to communicate with their  family back in SA, you have to persevere.   It’s important that the child doesn’t think this language is some kind of strange secret language that only your family speaks.  Ha-ha.  I know they might sometimes feel embarrassed speaking a different language in front of their friends, especially just starting school and when they become those creatures called teenagers!!

And it is general knowledge that the earlier kids are introduced to another language the easier for them to learn it.  Children will inevitable confuse the two languages, so it is extremely important that they know which language they need to speak to whom.   And it doesn’t matter if they make mistakes, that is the way to learn.  We all know the best way to learn a languages is by speaking it!

Growing up bilingual definitely has more advantages in today’s global village, also culturally.  Sometimes it is like the United Nations in our house.  We speak Afrikaans at home, but because we both have a Dutch background Dutch words and pronunciation slips in. Our youngest who was born in Ireland, started speaking very late.  Maybe he wasn’t sure what language to speak?  I think to him the languages he heard was all one language in the beginning.  So he would put a sentence together with a wonderful mixture of Afrikaans and English and Dutch words!

Our children all learn Irish (Gaelic) at school – they start at primary level – and when they are in secondary school they have  to learn at least one other European language.  So they learn French.  Our eldest also learns Spanish.  Recently we had a Spanish student living with us for a week to learn English, but every now and then he and our eldest would convert to Spanish and we would speak Afrikaans and then remembering we have to speak English to him….

I suppose it is no wonder that one would sometimes just go completely blank and totally forget what the word was and in what language you had to answer the person.  Then they say it helps your memory when you are bilingual….  I rest my case.



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