Multilingualism is the use of two or more languages by a person or the society at large. “A different language is a different vision of life” – Federico Fellini. This quote says a great deal about the importance of knowing multiple languages in a few words.
A child is born to learn and absorb knowledge effortlessly, especially in their formative years 0-3. Learning multiple languages comes easily to them and if they are given sufficient exposure at a young age. The ideal age for children to start is early in their infancy and between the ages 5-8 years. The whole language learning process leads to verbal enrichment which acts akin to a mental workout. The maximum languages a child should learn at time should be limited to four. This is because they need to be exposed to at least 30% of their waking hours to become multilingual. Learning multiple languages at a time will use up more time and energy leading to a burnout and confusion, which should be avoided. If started later in their teens, children may not be as receptive to learn a new language. During their teens, they are self-conscious and not ready to accept their mistakes easily, thus it may be discouraging for them to give it a try. Therefore, the best approach is to start as early as possible.
Various ways to help a child be multilingual-
1) Speaking to them in different languages. In this regard the OPOL (one person one language) method is particularly useful. Each parent/ person speaks to the child in one language thus ensuring the child learns two or more languages at a time.
2) Reading bilingual books/ listening to audio books in multiple languages specially in an interesting and easy to learn format.
3) Singing rhymes and songs, music CDs in varied languages making the learning process fun and hassle free.
4) Online resources like YouTube videos, bilingual language teaching sites etc.
5) Encourage your child to speak to friends or relatives who speak in a foreign language.
6) Find an international ‘pen pal’ or ‘e-pal’. It is a great way to learn about different cultures and languages.
Multilingualism in India:
Teaching multiple languages is a long term commitment. The joint family system prevalent here ensures that Indian children are exposed to multiple languages since childhood making it simpler for them to learn it. Thus, in India, children grow up learning their mother tongue, state language, national language as well as the international language English too. If the children aren’t encouraged to learn their mother tongue, they could lose a part of their cultural heritage which is an important link to their roots. In the West, they have to work harder to gain the same benefits as they normally stay in nuclear families with limitations in the usage of varied languages. In this regard, the Indian children get a kick start to become multilingual in turn making them multicultural too.
Benefits of being multilingual
“Learning a foreign language, and the culture that goes with it, is one of the most useful things we can do to broaden the empathy and imaginative sympathy and cultural outlook of children” ~ Michael Glove
Being multilingual has proven to help children develop superior reading, writing, listening, and cognitive skills which helps them do well academically. They have greater math proficiency due to higher analytical skills, concentration and abstract thinking. It has a positive impact on career prospects since being conversant in foreign languages is an added skill in a person’s résumé. It also helps them to adapt in a new environment while visiting a foreign nation thereby giving them a global advantage. Learning a new language acts as an exercise for the mental muscles as it involves memorising complex grammar rules and varied vocabulary. They are also adept listeners as they’re better at detecting different sounds. Switching between two structures comes naturally to them making them effective at multi-tasking.
In conclusion, it is believed that monolingual speakers are outnumbered by multilingual speakers in this world which speak volumes about its importance. In the West too, people have realised the importance of multilingualism and hence taking steps in that direction. There’s nothing to lose by choosing to be multilingual, it’s a win-win situation for all.