A friend recently sought advice from me.  She understands the benefits of bilingualism for her young children.  She wants to know the “best” language to teach her children.  As a speaker of more than one language, like most Kenyans, with the advantage of having lived, studied and worked in environments where languages other than English are spoken, I thought I could share some of the little things that I have learnt along the way.

There’s no doubt that bi or multilingualism offers a child (and adult) more than one way in which to see the world.  Someone who speaks English and Chinese will see life from a broader perspective than someone who speaks just English.  Also broader than someone who speaks just Chinese.  Reading from different alphabets will also stretch and benefit the brain, as will eating with a knife and fork, then switching to using chopsticks.  This enhances creativity, which is often a result of the collision of different world views.

There are other ways to offer the dual or multi world view to your children and to yourself.  For example, you could do this by putting your subject (child or adult) into 2 or more hobbies or careers.  Some psychologists have called this the hyphened or multidisciplinary lives.  For instance, Maria is a advertising executive who plays jazz on weekends.  If she is multicultural, then she would be described thus:  Maria, a Hungarian-Armenian advertising executive, born in Nairobi and plays African jazz by night.

We could go further and say that she majored in history with a minor in media and so on.  But the subject of hyphenated lives and interdisciplinary education is another subject altogether that we can revisit in the future.  Our subject today, is bi-multilingualism.

We can start by smashing the myth.  There is no “best” language to teach your child.  The more different a language, the better, obviously.  However, my humble opinion is that the “best” language closest to your reach is the best.  Let me explain:

Joseph and Jane are married and living in Nairobi.  Joseph is a Kikuyu while Jane is a Tanzanian.  Tanzanians basically speak Kiswahili.  Since their two children will learn English in school, then the “best” language to teach them is either Kikuyu or Swahili.  Or both.  This is because of the convenience of teaching.  The parents speak either language and chances are, there are relatives that can make learning easier.  The languages will also be meaningful because they link them to the family and culture of either parent, making it easier to learn.

Pierre and Melanie are French.  They live and work in Kenya.  They want their kids to be bilingual.  Since the parents already speak French at home, they have two options.  One is to send their kids to a British or American school for part of their learning in order to place the children in an English-speaking context where they can learn with little effort.  This may make Pierre and Melanie uncomfortable if their own English is not very good.  How will they help their kids with homework?  How will they monitor what their kids are learning? Then there’s option two, put the kids in the French School and then during holidays, find holiday activities that are held in English.  These include play school, sports, music or just hanging out with English-speaking friends.  The best option would be to place the kids in a bilingual school.  But there is none for French in Kenya.

Jack and Lulu are American.  They live in Nairobi, speak English and take their kids to the American school.  They met while in Brazil where both were employed for the same NGO.  They want bilingual kids.  What are their options?  Option one is to find a Portuguese class for their kids.  This makes sense because they both speak the language and it forms part of their history as a couple.  The second option is to take up a local language like Kiswahili.  The other local languages are too small and too concentrated to help in their future and practising them may be a challenge.  Kiswahili will help the kids interact with local kids and will help during travels to neighbouring countries such as Tanzania and Burundi.

Ken and Sylvia are two Kenyans who want their kids to learn a foreign language.  They know that Kiswahili will be taught in school and so they want a new option.  Ken speaks some local languages.  Sylvia studied in Germany.  German is a good foreign language to start with because the kids can practise with their mum.  Their dad could even start learning it as well.

The examples above show that the best language to teach your child will depend on your circumstances and sometimes the school will just impose itself by saying We Teach French.  Just go with the flow.

This kind of strategy works best with very young kids who may not have formed an opinion.  With time, as kids get older they may want to learn Spanish because they love bullfighting, learn English just to sing alone with lady Gaga and so on.  At this time, the “best” language becomes that which the child is interested in or that which has meaning for the child.  You may even have your multilingualism dream shattered when your child says they would rather drop learning languages and pick up a music instrument.  And this is not a bad thing because, in the while that the child was learning a new language, the brain was adapting and the child’s world view is already expanded.  And then, if the child learns the language of music, that is just another discipline that will help shape the way your child views the world.  A win-win situation.

As for adults learning languages, you will need to choose your language depending on your reasons for learning it.  French is a good option if your employer has headquarters in Geneva.  Chinese might work if you often travel to Guangzou to replenish your business stock.  Italian is ok if you just love the sound of it.    Go ahead open up to new language.  And while you are at it, savour the music, the food and the books of that language.




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