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Multilingual is Normal

Multilingual is Normal

February 21st was International Mother Language Day, which is held to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and to celebrate multilingualism. A firm advocate of speaking multiple languages is Cheltenham MumBoss Cate Hamilton, who is hoping to get a language revolution going in the UK, a country that has a poor reputation for learning foreign languages because ‘everyone else’ speaks English, right?

Over the last ten years, evidence has been piling up from research into bilingualism showing that learning languages is not only good for your understanding of the world, but that there are massive advantages for your long-term brain health.

Some of the stats:

  • Being bilingual DOUBLES your chances of a full recovery from stroke
  • Bilingualism delays dementia symptoms 4 years on average (up to 6 if you happen to be illiterate too 😉 )
  • Your risk of global aphasia (not being able to process language) reduces from just under 60% for monolinguals to 17.9% for bilinguals (fanfare emoji!)

That’s HUGE news!

There is definitely a bilingual advantage. And it seems to come not from the languages themselves, but from the way our brains learn to juggle multiple languages. And you don’t have to be fluent either. It’s the effort of learning languages that brings the health benefits.

When we go to speak or to think, we engage ALL of the language areas of our brain, and then we suppress any languages that we don’t need in the moment. So if I’m speaking English to my husband I suppress my French, and if I’m speaking French to my Parisian friend I suppress my English. It’s called executive function and I imagine it like a dashboard or control panel, with only the buttons lit up that I need but everything poised, ready to go. If I’m speaking to my best mate, however, I can speak any language I like because she speaks the same mix of French, English, German and gibberish that I do. We go back so far we have all the same references from films and books and shared experiences, so even one phrase quoted from a random film we saw in 2002, in a language not even from the film, can trigger a memory and a significance for us both that is like our shared shorthand. That’s the language of long-term friendship.

Anyway, I digress (as usual!) and will get back to the point, which is namely that humans are naturally MULTILINGUAL creatures, and thrive in a multilingual environment. We have evolved, like all species on this planet, to adapt to our environment and that environment is changing more rapidly in the last 200 years than it did in the previous 2000 years.

Not so many centuries ago our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have naturally married someone who spoke a different language to ensure they had healthy babies because marrying someone from the same language background would potentially lead to genetic problems with conceiving and birthing healthy babies. The wider the gene pool, the better, for the survival of the tribe. In this context, multilingual babies are the healthy ones: it’s a survival mechanism humans have developed as a species over millennia. And our brains have slowly developed over those thousands of years to easily cope with the four or more languages that would be part of a new baby’s immediate family circle, with both sets of grandparents speaking two languages, and parents who speak different languages…and so it multiplies in each generation!

Fast forward to The British Empire (ship emoji!) and suddenly a little-known language from a rainy island full of mud huts hits the big-time, and in our race to claim as many countries for Queen and Empire as possible, and to trade with far-flung lands (hello coffee and sugar!), our little English vernacular went global. In the last 200 years, being born to English-speaking parents has become the new ‘normal’ for UK and US dwellers, but it is not how our brains have evolved over the many centuries before. Monolingualism is a disadvantage for our health, reversing the positive statistics cited above. And being an English speaker is a bit of a disadvantage as a language learner too, because everyone wants to practise English on us when we go abroad and it’s hard to get a word in sometimes isn’t it?

Luckily for you local parents, Babel Babies has the solution: come and learn languages together! With your babies, toddlers and preschoolers you can explore the world (without the arduous sea voyages) and sing songs in different languages from Japanese to Portuguese, Arabic to Welsh, French to Norwegian. Since it’s unlikely that someone speaks all ten of our key languages (also including Spanish, German, Italian, and Russian) everyone is learning together and it’s a lovely way to bond with your children at the same time as meeting new parent friends with similar interests beyond baby-related chat.

Most importantly, learning languages is the most natural thing in the world. Humans are meant to have multilingual babies: we’ve been doing it forever, and it’s really good for your own brain’s long-term health as well as all the other social and cultural benefits that speaking multiple languages brings for your children too.

People talk. It’s just what humans do!

The next 5-week course of Babel Babies in Cheltenham starts on Monday 25th and Thursday 28th February at The Exmouth Arms and Friday 1st March at School House Café. Hop over to www.babelbabies.com/book-online to snap up your space in the Bambinos session (10am, for toddlers, preschoolers and little siblings) or Babies session (10.45am for babies from newborn to walking).

It’s guaranteed to give you and your little ones plenty to talk about.

A Guest Blog from Cate Hamilton

Cate Hamilton is  the co-founder of Babel Babies; multilingual, multisensory music sessions and loves helping parents and children learn languages together. She used to teach reluctant teenagers French, but realised after having her first child that babies are total geniuses at learning languages, and adults often wish they could speak other languages, so we should pair them up. She is a maman of three and enjoys (school) runs, photography and baking elaborate birthday cakes.

Find Babel Babies on FacebookInstagram and Twitter and join the little language revolution that started in Cheltenham nearly six years ago when two sleep-deprived mamans said to each other, “Know Twinkle Twinkle in any other languages? I’m so bored of singing it in English!”

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