Brick by Brick | Bilingual Win-Win

March 14th, 2014

This article is more than 10 years old.

I love learning languages and I always liked the idea of bringing up a bilingual child.

Then I married an American who speaks (an approximation of) my native language, so that idea seemed to go out the window, until we came here.

I thought sending our child to a Danish school was obvious; wouldn’t anyone seize the chance to be bilingual?

But actually we are an oddity, and the reactions to us deciding against an international school range from surprised to astonished.


Paranoid she’s Denglish

“Won’t she get mixed up,” people say. “Why bother with Danish? It’s not very useful …”

I’ll admit there are wobbly days, when your child says something really Denglish and you get paranoid you’ve totally messed up her education. 

I turn to Dr Martha Karrebæk, an associate professor at the University of tCopenhagen and an expert on linguistics and bilingual children.

I dredge up some first year undergraduate linguistics from about a hundred years ago to break the ice.

Chomsky’s a chump

“Universal grammar”, I say chummily. “Is that why kids learn languages so quickly? Do we have a kind of language template in our minds until puberty that helps us learn any language?”

“That’s Chomsky’s theory,” she says adding that she doesn’t believe in it at all. She thinks children tend to learn languages quickly for other reasons.

To name but a few: they speak more, their identity is not so tied up in their language, and they tend to speak about simpler things – like chewing gum rather than Chomsky.

I can’t help feeling deflated, as the late night discussions of my university days (so many of which revolved around Chomsky and seemed so fabulously intellectual at the time) suddenly seem like hot air.


Bilingual side-effects 

I return to the point. Does it make a kid brainier to be bilingual?

“A lot of the research (into this) is motivated by people who think the opposite and there is (certainly) no evidence that being bilingual makes you less intelligent,” she says reassuringly.

“There is some evidence that bilinguals do better at certain cognitive challenges. But what that means in everyday life …”

“But what about getting mixed up; what about not really having a native language?” I ask nervously.

“Bilinguals get mixed up just like anyone else, but it resolves,” she explains. “And if someone is not (very) eloquent in two languages, they probably wouldn’t have been (very) eloquent in just one (language either).

Also, a bilingual person might not know all the same words in each language.”

This is something I’ve been quite worried about and as a result have tried to find out what’s happening at school and then drop the vocabulary into conversation.

It’s not easy – you try finding opportunities to use words like sarcophagus and giant hogweed casually.

Give it to us straight

But I need to know, I ask Martha straight. “So have we totally messed things up putting her in a Danish school when neither of her parents speaks the language well?

And I get a straight answer: “No, you’ll have to try much harder than that to mess up her education.”


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