“What Is Your Language?” by Debra Leventhal

It was shortly after moving to Antwerp, Belgium.  I was stopped in the street by a  little boy scout. He spoke Flemish, which at that time was Greek to me, so I shyly recited my exit phrase “Ik spreek geen Vlaams.” (I don’t speak Flemish.) The boy didn’t give in, though. He just calmly followed in fluent English. “So what language do you speak? English, French, Italian?”

As someone who was born and raised in a highly monolingual country, where foreign languages were heard only at school, the move to the multilingual Belgium came to me as a linguistic shock.  The little boy, who was no older than seven and was ready to converse with me in four languages, was my inspiration to expand not only my own multi-linguistic abilities, but also take care of my children’s. As a result,  I make a conscious effort to speak Polish to my boys and use language schools and babysitters for the Spanish immersion. So far, it has been working out great. Now, why do I bother turning my household into the Tower of Babel? For me the answer is pretty simple. I want  my children to communicate with their Polish-speaking grandparents and their Spanish-speaking neighbors. I don’t want them to feel lost when traveling abroad, avoid foreign movies and read only translated classics.  But why do I start at such an early age?

1. Children are perfect multilinguals-to-be.

A new-born brain is la carte blanche. It is capable of learning any sound of any language in the world. The brain of a six-month-old baby starts filtering the sounds of their native language and the languages they are exposed to. Year by year, children’s linguistic capabilities become more limited. And we all know how hard it is to learn a new language as a grown up.

2. A child’s brain is like a sponge.

Child’s brain has twice as many neural connections (synapses) than adult’s brain. Unfortunately, if the connections stay unused, they vanish.  Conclusion? It’s crucial to stimulate child’s brain early on, because it’s like a sponge, which will dry up when unused.  Learning new skills, including languages, keeps the synapses active. What’s more, some scientists claim that being multilingual enhances your multi-tasking skills. A child that is used to juggling different languages is more likely to shuffle various tasks more efficiently than a monolingual child.

3. Language acquisition vs. language learning. 

Many parents wait with exposing a child to foreign languages until the kids are “old enough”. They don’t want to “confuse the chid” with too many languages. A common yet very fatal mistake. A teenager is indeed more capable of memorizing new words and understanding the rules of grammar but he or she will struggle with fluency, accent and linguistic nuances. Learning a language is a slow and painful process, as opposed to spontaneous language acquisition, which is a gift of little children. A child  picks up languages without thinking. It doesn’t matter if it is their native language or not. But around the age of 12, things change. The time for language acquisition is over and all we can do is to try to learn some of the simpler tongues, like English.

“What is Your Language” by Debra Leventhal is actually a song turned into a picture story. As a child travels to different countries and hears different languages. Yes, Oui, Da, Si… Of course the book is not meant to teach different languages but makes the reader aware  that they exist. 

When my son turned two, I actually did look for a book that would teach my son Polish. As I didn’t find one, I decided to write one: http://www.blurb.com/books/2651759-wstep-do-jezyka-polskiego-dla-dzieci-introduction

Hopefully,  my older son will read it soon to my younger son. Pass the word to anyone, whose children learn Polish as a second language. I wonder if they find it useful.