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    The gift of tongues

    One of my earliest memories of growing up as a bilingual child in the Philippines was that my siblings and I felt…well, rather special. The fact that from the age of two or three we could rattle off in French amongst ourselves, then within seconds and without a moment’s hesitation switch to English when addressing our relatives or friends around us, always seemed to enthral and impress some people. It was at times annoying though. Occasionally, my mother’s friends, who found it irresistibly cute that we could speak French, would squeeze our cheeks in delight and beg us to say something in French (anything!) even if they couldn’t understand a word we said.

    People would frequently make a fuss. But despite the unwanted attention, we knew that not everyone around us could speak two languages fluently. Later on, when as a family we went to live in the French countryside for a few years, all my French classmates knew that my sister and I were the only ones who could speak English fluently, and because of this, we felt just a tad more unique. Nevertheless, during the early years of our childhood, being bilingual felt more like we had a cool party trick up our sleeve, rather than a useful and advantageous skill. It was only years later, as we started growing up, that we realised what a wonderful gift our parents had given us by striving to bring us up as bilingual and, eventually, multilingual children.

    My Filipina mother, who spoke French fluently after studying at the Alliance Française in Manila and later on at the Sorbonne University in Paris, only met my French/Swiss expatriate father once she returned home to her native Manila. From the earliest years of their marriage, they decided that we would grow up to be at least bilingual in French and English, and ideally proficient in Tagalog (the other official language of the Philippines in addition to English). Thus, they proceeded to make French the main language of the family at home, and enrolled us in an English kindergarten in Manila to begin with.

    As I grew up, I continued my schooling in France and, upon returning to the Philippines, first at the French School and later at the International School in Manila. I found it quite easy to pick up Spanish as an additional subject, because of its similarities to French and Tagalog. Subsequently, I went on to study Japanese at my university in Tokyo, and this opened up more doors for me throughout my career – including getting a dream job at Nike’s world headquarters in the United States. There, I picked up my sixth language, Portuguese, thanks to the work I did for Nike in Brazil. To this day, I credit my parents’ foresight and efforts in giving me this priceless gift of languages, which has granted me countless opportunities in my personal and professional life.

    Today, as I contemplate raising my own multiracial children in multicultural Singapore, I am acutely aware that being bilingual or multilingual is becoming an increasingly widespread social phenomenon, governed by the trends of globalisation, immigration and the rapid rise of cross-cultural marriages. It is however interesting to observe that, historically, language exposure as a result of migration, conquest, colonisation and even slavery has created a multitude of sociolinguistic environments in which individuals have been exposed to other languages, besides their own mother tongue. In fact, the reality of today’s present world is that across most continents, multilingual speakers continue to outnumber monolinguals, making multilingualism the norm and monolingualism the exception.

    Consequently, there was never a doubt in my mind that my own children would grow up speaking at least two languages, as I did.

    I was determined to ensure that I would give them that advantage early on, no matter what. As I spent considerable time and energy researching and reading up on the subject of bilingualism and multilingualism, I came across a surprising controversy about whether growing up bilingual is an advantage or a disadvantage. The theory is that growing up bilingual is beneficial to a child’s development and cognitive skills, but many have come to question the idea because they believe that bilingual children end up without complete fluency in any language. Despite the historical facts pointing to the contrary, there have even been voices in the past claiming that raising bilingual children is something unnatural.

    Nowadays, most linguists agree that these kinds of theories and myths are completely unfounded. In 1962, Elizabeth Peal and Wallace Lambert conducted one of the first studies of bilingualism in ten-year-old children from six schools in Montreal, Canada. Their study confirmed the positive influence of bilingualism. The results showed that ten-year-old bilinguals (French/English) performed far better on intellectual analytical tests than did monolinguals.

    Since then, numerous studies on language development have corroborated these findings and demonstrated that being bilingual not only enhances our ability to understand and analyse concepts, but also increases our access to multiple perspectives in a multicultural society. Furthermore, growing up bilingual is not only the easiest way to learn a language, as it was for my siblings and me, but it also makes learning other languages much easier. The differences in sounds, word order, rhythm, intonation and grammatical construction in a new language are much easier to learn if you already speak a couple of languages. Indeed, bilingualism has been proven to help children develop overall better analytical and academic skills, than their monolingual peers.

    Knowing more than one language facilitates a natural flexibility and adaptability, and boosts self-esteem and self-confidence, while increasing the appreciation and acceptance of other cultural differences. And when it comes to career prospects in most parts of the globe, as I found out myself, knowing more than one language has been established as an excellent way to increase your chances.

    Furthermore, research conducted by a group in Concordia University in 2019 found growing evidence to suggest that bilingualism provides cognitive benefits such as better inhibitory control, and that it can be a protective factor against the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Numerous studies have found that the onset of Alzheimer’s disease is delayed by 4-5 years in bilingual patients when compared to monolingual patients regardless of sex, lifestyle, education and occupation.

    This being said, there are unfortunately still many people who could have grown up bilingual, but regretfully did not, because of the choices their own parents made to focus on a single language. Many immigrants, for instance, make a conscious effort to fit into their new country, and as a result prefer to concentrate on the language of the home nation at the expense of their native tongue. While these motivations are completely understandable, many children regret their parents’ decision in the long term. Besides having their child miss out on the great advantages of growing up bilingual, parents who don’t stimulate the learning of their own mother tongue are ensuring that their children lose a valuable cultural heritage and an important connection to their own roots.

    Ultimately, the pros of being bilingual vastly outnumber the cons. And there are basically only four potential drawbacks to growing up bilingual, which are not even applicable in every case. They are: starting to speak later, mixing languages, the additional effort for the parents and the different levels of fluency in both languages (reading & writing vs only speaking, for instance). While it has been said that bilingual children, in some cases, begin speaking later (sometimes three to six months later) because they are learning two language systems at the same time, it is a small price to pay for the ability to grow up bilingual.

    Mixing words is usually a temporary phenomenon, which tends to diminish by the age of four or five, or when vocabulary in each language augments. It is also true that raising a bilingual child is a big commitment and a long-term investment. It requires extra effort from the parents to ensure the right amount of language exposure and discipline to keep language rules consistent. But parents of bilingual children agree overwhelmingly that the benefits for their children are well worth the effort.

    Lastly, reading and writing in two languages adds to the academic workload especially if the aim is complete fluency in both languages. It helps if the alphabet is the same, but often this is not the case, such as in Chinese and German for example. As a result, fluency in both languages actually hinges on many factors and varies depending on the individual’s own ability, commitment and, of course, on the chosen language’s degree of difficulty. And while it is possible for some individuals to be completely and equally fluent in two languages (speaking, reading and writing), it is not uncommon for some bilingual people to feel more comfortable writing or reading in one language rather than in the other.

    Nevertheless, despite these numerous challenges, there is no doubt that multilingual children enjoy more advantages in their life as a result. My own four children are extremely fortunate to be growing up in multicultural Singapore, speaking French and English fluently. They are conversational in basic Tagalog, which we speak every day with our Filipina nanny at home. Spanish has spiked their curiosity too, as they are keenly aware of my many Spanish-speaking expatriate friends. And they chuckle and pride themselves about the fact they can already understand a little Spanish and Malay, because of the similarities with Tagalog (which is a blend of Malay and Spanish).

    Additionally, my children have been studying Chinese for many years, while first attending the Lycée Français of Singapore in their primary school years, and then middle school and high school at the United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA), one of the most diverse and culturally rich schools in the world. Even if they sometimes complain to me about how hard it is to learn Chinese, I remind them that one day, they will realise how privileged they all are to be exposed to such an important and valuable language. I promise them, as my parents promised me, that their hard work and efforts will give them an added advantage in life when it comes to both career and personal opportunities.

    Bringing up bilingual or multilingual children takes some effort and determination, but the benefits vastly outweigh the difficulties and leads to cognitive benefits that will last their entire life. Learning a new language is not simply an additional practical skill, it offers a completely different vision and perspective of the world. While it opens up a whole new cultural appreciation, it sharpens our intellect and keeps our brain alert.

    Speaking more than one language strengthens leadership skills by broadening the way people communicate, how they are perceived by their audience and how they connect with their own multilingual and multicultural teams. It has certainly helped me become a much more inclusive and empathetic leader, particularly given the diversity of my colleagues and teammates. And while attaining and maintaining fluency in any language takes tremendous commitment and discipline, in the end, couldn’t bilingualism – or multilingualism – be one of the greatest gifts you could offer your own children?

    This article was from the QS Insights Magazine, Issue 2. Read the full edition