It can be difficult enough for many three-year-olds growing up in the UK to acquire and become fluent in just one language, typically English. Another growing group of young children is those who learn and assimilate vocabulary from more than one language before entering primary school.
In 2021, there were around 6 million non-British citizens residing in the UK, including 9.6 million people who were born abroad and 35% of them reside in London. The term “super-diversity” was coined by the German anthropologist Professor Steven Vertovec to describe this relatively recent terrain of such different national origins. Our educational system reflects the super-diversity of the UK, where 20% of students speak English as a second language. More than 300 different languages are spoken in London schools.
Bart’s perspective on multiple languages.
Bart, a three-year-old living in London, juggles Italian, Dutch, English, and a little bit of Spanish in his home with the help of his nursery caregiver. His mother, Gwen Jansen, relocated to the UK from the Netherlands ten years ago, and his father, Riccardo Attanasio, is the son of Italian immigrants. They can seamlessly transition between many languages. Attanasio explains, “We have busy, hectic lives.” “When toys are being thrown around while you’re trying to cook dinner, or doing bedtime, you speak whatever language gets the job done.”
Attanasio states that before Bart was born: “We didn’t have a plan as such, but we knew we wanted to raise him trilingual (who speaks three languages with general fluency). When I was growing up, my dad insisted that my siblings and I learned Italian so we could communicate with our grandparents in Italy. Italian culture is a big part of me. I want Bart to have that, too.”
The advantages of maintaining a flexible vocabulary and moving with the flow are clear to Bart and his family. However, the most well-known methods for language acquisition in bilingual families follow specific guidelines: The “minority-language-at-home” strategy advises parents to speak only their heritage language at home while the local language is taught in school. Both approaches advocate for parents to speak only their first language to their children.
However, many linguists support plurilingualism (the ability to use skills in several different languages for effective communication.) as a new, more democratic method of language learning in light of the appreciation of linguistic diversity in extremely different countries. Essentially, the strategy recommends that parents employ several languages in ways that are understandable to them rather than according to a fixed set of standards.
According to Marina Antony-Newman, a doctorate student at the UCL Institute of Education who is advancing the idea of plurilingual parenting, “Plurilingualism takes a dynamic view of language practises.” The usage of languages in various situations rather than the “ideal” competence of a native speaker is stressed, and incomplete language ability is accepted. The methodology focuses more on how languages and cultures interact in a dynamic and complex system. She says that pluralism is more about “the methods they are spoken” than “the number of languages spoken.”
Certain beliefs around language learning may create tension within families. For example, the idea that two or more languages spoken to a child might delay language development, or impact their academic ability, is particularly sticky. Researchers have spent decades quashing these myths, as well as proving that bilingual children have many cognitive advantages like improved executive function: the mental processes that enable us to focus attention, plan, remember and juggle multiple tasks.
Benefits of learning languages.
Learning new languages has many obvious benefits, including cognitive advantages that start in childhood and last throughout our lives. Studies have shown that long-term use of two or more languages can physically alter the brain, with an increase in grey matter volume in the areas of the brain that control learning and short-term memory storage. In 2017, a University of Edinburgh study of 600 stroke sufferers indicated that 40.5% of those who were multilingual had normal mental abilities following their stroke, compared to 19.6% of those who only spoke one language. There are also preventive benefits for brain health. Additionally, learning various languages helps lower your risk of developing dementia and generally encourages “healthy ageing.” Children can also develop greater empathy because they learn to view the world from viewpoints other than their own.
On paper, all of this research appears to be a no-brainer for those learning extra languages or for parents who are native English speakers and support foreign language study at home. The issue is that some illusions about learning a language—especially English—remain among immigrant parents. Why?
According to Dr Max Antony-Newman of Sheffield Hallam University, “Theoretical science confounded language with social class” and “diversity was an issue that needed to be controlled historically.” His study focuses on family participation, immigrant students, and linguistic minorities. He claims that science has caught up and those fMRI scanners can now examine the brains of multilingual people. “We find that all these so-called ‘delays’ aren’t there, but it takes longer for it to convert into schooling,” he argues. Additionally, there is the media and political discourse around immigration.
Anthony-Newman thinks attitudes toward language learning within immigrant families develop slowly because of the history of immigration in the West following World War Two. In his words, “Immigrants were stigmatised; viewed as lower-class, taking on low-paying employment. “For instance, most immigrants to the US originate from Europe. You shouldn’t speak Italian at home, teachers would advise. Your children won’t integrate well. They may also speak with an accent and improper grammar, which is unacceptable in professional settings.
The children are already using their languages to their advantage, too. “When they speak the Portuguese language to Bruno and don’t get what they want, they will turn around and say the same thing to me in the German language,” d’Amato said. “Ultimately, we want to give them opportunity and awareness, because when you’re teaching language, you’re teaching culture. That’s what diversity is about, isn’t it?”
Bilingual children’s perspectives on family language policy: the UK’s French-speaking population.
34% of children born in Britain have at least one parent who was born abroad, according to the most recent report from the Office for National Statistics (Births by Parents’ Country of Birth, England and Wales: 2017. UK: Statistical Bulletin). There is still much to learn about heritage language (HL), also known as a minority language, with roughly 20% of primary school students classified as speakers of English as a second language. This research describes the bilingual experiences of five French-English transnational children in Britain using the idea of the Family Language Policy (FLP).
The study investigates how young heritage speakers view growing up bilingual and how they feel about parental language control. This study presents the variety of experiences among transnational children through a combination of interviews, language portraits, and observations. There is a discussion of the potential effects of parents’ language planning choices on children’s experiences. The results highlight the distinctive nature of every child’s bilingual experience and also suggest that children’s perspectives may be very different from their parents’, which may cause conflict within the family. Finally, the study makes the case that to fully comprehend the effects of parental language planning, FLP research needs to take a more integrative approach that incorporates children’s perspectives.
When moving to another country, people bring their culture (language) with them.
People take their culture with them when they relocate to another country. Parents who raise their kids in many languages preserve aspects of their own identity and give their kids a real sense of their background. The UK benefits greatly from multiple languages on a social and economic level, but this needs to be acknowledged outside of families and in schools. Currently, the fact that 4.2 million individuals in the UK speak a language other than English at home is not taken into account in our approach to language education. Language instruction differs from school to school.
Many languages contend that a plurilingual strategy in primary schools, one that embraces variety and encourages awareness of heritage languages, not only helps children of immigrant families learn the English language faster, but also enhances psychological wellness.
This exhibits consideration for other kids on the surface. The fundamental truth is less clear. “Racial isolation is a persistent problem. According to Curdt-Christiansen, it is apparent that languages other than the English language are not appreciated.
Encouragement of language variety could result in future generations having healthier brains and more career prospects given all the cognitive benefits of knowing multiple languages. But at the core of it all, we’re also discussing something more fundamental: the ability of people to express themselves and be heard and seen.
This private exchange reveals a larger truth: people may be more authentic selves if we foster a culture that values language diversity. This is undoubtedly something worth striving for in a global Britain.