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Two Languages are Better Than One

Gennaio 2011
Chi ha la fortuna di nascere da due genitori di paesi diversi parte con un vantaggio enorme: impara due lingue senza alcuno sforzo! Sta ai genitori stimolare questo processo, e non scoraggiarsi davanti alle eventuali difficoltà. Ecco l’esperienza e i consigli di una mamma inglese che vive in Germania.

di Jackie Guigui-Stolberg

File audio:

Margaret Bray
Margaret Bray

Most of the world’s children who grow up speaking two or more languages fluently do so because they have no other choice. Today there are about 200 countries in the world with 116 official languages, but over 6,000 languages are spoken. Some language experts say there is only one truly monolingual country: Cuba. The majority of all people in the world use two or more languages daily.

smArt kids

As more and more people learn foreign languages, move abroad for work, and marry partners of other nationalities, increasing numbers of children are also growing up bilingually. This is because their parents want them to. They usually learn one language at home, and the other in the outside world. This can have clear benefits. Jörg Roche, a professor of language and communication in Munich, says that bilingual children “develop very good maths and music skills.”
In his book A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism, Colin Baker says that bilingual children know two or more words to express one idea, so “when slightly different associations are attached to each word, the bilingual child may be able to think more fluently, flexibly, and creatively.” He adds that bilingual children generally become more tolerant and patient communicators. Researchers at York University in Toronto have also found that bilinguals learn to read more easily.


But many parents worry about possible disadvantages. They are alarmed when they hear their young children mix the two languages. The children are not necessarily confused, however. Young bilingual children typically mix vocabulary and syntax as they understand and separate the two languages. In actual fact, this creative manipulation and experimentation is what makes them particularly sensitive users of each language. One real danger of raising children with two (and especially more) languages is that they could become not “bilingual” but “semi-lingual.” They might never learn to speak any language perfectly. This can happen when children do not hear or read one language enough, or if they don’t have adequate speaking practice or formal education in one main language.

mental block

The big challenge for parents who want their children to become bilingual is that they have to preserve the mother tongue even after another language  – usually the language used in school and with friends – becomes dominant in the child’s life. Parents must continue to speak the minority language to their children as they mature emotionally, physically, and intellectually over many years.
Once children enter pre-school, they often stop speaking their mother tongue as they concentrate on the majority language. The parents must insist on using the mother tongue at a time when their children are already trying hard to find their way in society with another language. Afterwards, children might speak either language, depending on the situation. During puberty, children often block off the parent’s language. Later, many older children rediscover and learn to appreciate their mother tongue.


LANGUAGE LEVEL B2 (upper intermediate)

Speaker: Rachel Roberts (Standard British accent)

Being bilingual is increasingly common in today’s society, but what’s it like to raise a bilingual child? One person who has experience of this is Margaret Bray (pictured above). A native of Bristol in England,  she is married to a German, Ingo, and lives in Munich with him and their two bilingual daughters; Helen, 16, and Laura, who is 12. We asked Margaret Bray what advice she had for parents who planned to raise their children bilingually:

Margaret Bray (Standard British accent)

Well, my first tip would be: “Stay with it, don’t give up!” I know people who have given up: for whatever reason, they can’t be bothered to keep speaking two languages, especially when they’re in company. They feel, for whatever reason, it’s rude to do so, or it’s just too much work and it’s such a shame because you’re giving your child a gift, no matter what language it is. It doesn’t have to be English, it can be Maltese, it can be Serbo-Croat, just do it because, you know, being able to speak more than one language always has advantages.
And my second piece of advice would be: “Make sure your children mix with other children who speak the language that you want them to speak,” because it’s not enough for them to be surrounded by adults. I really think they should have people that they can play with in that language: very important.

And she had more to say on the subject:

Margaret Bray

I have some friends who live in the neighbourhood. These are two men who are English-speaking, native speakers, and they’re married to German women. And they have tried to raise their kids bilingually, and it is a little bit more difficult, for the simple reason the children spend more time with the mother, and, OK, in our case it was easy because I was the foreigner – or I am the foreigner – here, in Germany, but my kids are with me, they see me a lot more than they see their Dad, who’s out working all day. So it was easy for them to sort of learn English with me. Now, my two friends, the fathers, don’t see their children as often as the children see their mothers, so, consequently, the German is a lot stronger there and the English has suffered somewhat. I think it is easier if the mother is the one who is the foreign speaker. I think the child has a better chance of picking up the second language, perhaps more easily and more quickly, simply due to the fact that they spend more time with the mother, and they’re more exposed to that second language than they are, maybe, if the father is the one who speaks the second language.

We then asked Margaret Bray whether her daughters were happy being bilingual:

Margaret Bray

Oh, yes, absolutely, I mean, especially with English, it’s such a cool language to be able to speak, because so much is in English, certainly here in Germany: we’re surrounded by English, you know, on advertising, films, pop music, of course, and, yeah, just the fact that my kids are able to help their classmates with homework!




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Grammar point - verbs followed by prepositions. Ricordatevi che i verbi con una preposizione sono seguiti dalla forma -ing: The parents must insist on using the mother tongue. Bilingual children are used to using one or more languages. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Piece of advice. In inglese le parole advice, information e news sono tutte singolari e uncountable (non contabili). Per questo motivo bisogna chiedere some information (dell’informazione) e non delle informazioni. Diciamo che the news is good or bad anche se si tratta di più notizie. Se invece vogliamo specificare che vogliamo dare una notizia importante, o un consiglio, bisogna dire a piece of advice, a piece of news o a piece of information.