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BBK Public Lecture: The Pleasure of Raising Multilingual Children

Starts 23 June 2017 - 18:00
Finishes 23 June 2017 - 20:00
Venue Birkbeck, Malet Street
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The Pleasure of Raising Multilingual Children

Jean-Marc Dewaele

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Parents everywhere in the world want the best for their children. It means looking after their physical and psychological health as well as their education. I remember reading books with my wife when she was pregnant with Livia about the best ways to raise children. We felt a little overwhelmed by the amount of information and the occasionally contradictory suggestions on how to be good parents. We were also struck by the strong opinions people had about early multilingualism. Many expressed doubts about it being beneficial for the child “before a first language” settled in: wasn’t there a risk of the child ending up with a “muddled” linguistic system, unable to distinguish between the languages? Others wondered whether growing up with multiple languages might lead to an absence of clear linguistic and cultural roots for the child.

Having read my former PhD supervisor, Hugo Baetens Beardsmore’s (1982) book, Bilingualism: Basic Principles, my wife and I decided that the potential benefits of early multilingualism outweighed the potential drawbacks, and when Livia was born in London in 1996, my wife used Dutch with her, I used French, with English spoken all around us. She picked up Urdu from her Pakistani child-minder, who spoke English and Urdu with the English-speaking children. We were a bit concerned that the introduction of a fourth first language might be too much for Livia, but this fear turned out to be unfounded and her languages developed at a normal pace – though Urdu faded away after the age of two and a half when she moved to an English nursery school. From the moment she started speaking, she was perfectly capable of separating her languages, and switching from one to another effortlessly depending on the linguistic repertoire of her interlocutor. She still sounds like a native speaker in her three languages and consistently got some of the highest marks for English during her primary and secondary education. The brain of a baby is like a sponge: sufficient and regular linguistic input will allow it to absorb the languages in its environment. There is no danger of the brain ‘overheating’ because of exposure to too many languages.


Livia’s case is the first story in the book Raising Multilingual Children that has just come out and that contains concrete and practical ideas to implement multilingualism in the household.



Julia Festman, Gregory J. Poarch and Jean-Marc Dewaele (2017) Raising Multilingual ChildrenBristol: Multilingual Matters.

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Exact location will be announced via email.


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