My kids are four, three, and one. We’re in the local supermarket, laying our few items on the self-service checkout. As with everything I do with three under five, this doesn’t go smoothly. A fight ensues over who can lift the chocolate biscuits out of the basket. Then something happens. A tall man with kind eyes cuts across to help me. ‘Mum,’ my eldest shouts, appraising him, ‘he looks like the Big Friendly Giant!’
‘Please ground, swallow me up.
Most parents would will the ground into swallowing up their whole family, leaving nothing but their basket. Not me. I calmly agreed and told them to be kind to the helpful giant.
Now, if you think I’m irritatingly zen, you would be wrong. I blush easily, and the burn of my cheeks reddening is way more familiar than I would like. But my kids are rarely the cause, whatever they may shout in public. Why?
Not all superheroes wear capes.
Because my kids have a superpower, they are bilingual.
My mother tongue is the language they speak with me in a country where English is dominant. If they use words that could offend someone, I don’t worry because they won’t even notice.
I can’t tell you how many times their linguistic force has spared my blushes. The first time they spotted a lady with skin color, unlike their own. Or the day they pointed out a woman with whiskers on her chin. Their superpower has been helpful in awkward playdate scenarios when it falls to the mums to work out which child handed out the slap, kick, or bite.
Speaking a different language allows us to talk to each other without fear of strangers understanding what we say. It gives me breathing room to explain why someone looks a certain way or console them when emotions run high, without fear of their friends knowing what they say.
Both parents should be on board.
But, while my kids and I are bilingual, my husband has never gotten to grips with learning my language. Since I have known him, he has taken up climbing, playing the piano and guitar, but another language seems like a step too far, I guess. In fairness to him, however, he has been on board since our first child was a faint blue line.
So from the day our children were born, I have spoken Dutch to them. Never wavering. Not just at home, but out and about, and (gasp) in front of English speakers. Yes, I have felt rude and disrespectful to other adults and children in our company. And to be brutally honest, I’m not sure how my friends think about this aspect of our parenting. To any of them reading this, I’m sorry, and I hope you’ll now understand.
If you treat it like an experiment, it will never be more
But you see, once you start feeling self-conscious in front of others, your children will feel it too. Slowly you will speak more English, and before you know it, your bilingual experiment will be that—an experiment.
It hasn’t been an easy path to walk. Occasionally smooth, often bumpy. There are days the children don’t like it, especially when I make them read Dutch books on top of their regular homework. Sometimes, I don’t want to make an effort either. But I persevere, and after nearly ten years, it would be a shame if I let it all go.
Also, they would miss out on many advantages. They don’t struggle with learning a third language (Irish) like many of their monolingual classmates. My kids chat with their Dutch grandparents without making my parents work to speak English. They also access their second culture via the language — all beautiful things.
And just like over twelve million kids in the States, and almost twenty percent of children in the UK, our kids can look forward to more benefits throughout their lives. Here are some:
- Bilingual children can focus better on information relevant by ignoring interferences, which comes in handy in our distraction-driven society.
- Research shows a link between creative potential and bilingualism.
- A study has shown that bilingualism provides the brain with a higher cognitive reserve, which allows the delay of early dementia symptoms.
- And this, a favorite of mine: in Canada, bilinguals who speak French and English earn a median income close to 10% higher than English-only speakers and even 40% more than French monolinguals.
So I guess what I’m saying is this. Are you pregnant, bilingual, and unsure whether it’s worth passing on your mother tongue? Please go for it.
No one ever regrets learning another language, and you will be giving your child a powerful leg up in a competitive world.
Trust me; when they’re older, they will thank you for it.
Be warned: their force does not work in your home country
Just make sure you remember one thing: their superpower only works in your adopted country, not your own.
As I said, I redden quickly. So when I think back to the time, I pointed out how the tall, skinny character with the straggly ponytail cycling in front was a man, not a girl – my cheeks burn. One angry dude later, I realized the ground never swallows you up when you need it to.
Previously Published on Medium
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