“To have another language is to possess a second soul.”
‘Charlemagne’ (742 – 814, King of the Franks and Emperor of the Romans)
As soon as we are born we utter sounds which, with guidance of our parents and environment, develop it into our most valuable tool for human interaction: language.
From that moment it is our most important medium to express ourselves towards others.
The language we then master will be our ‘mother tongue’ in which we then become a ‘native speaker’ as it is called. However nowadays more than often we acquire a second language also which we use frequently to communicate with others that don’t speak our mother tongue. Migrants are most often obliged to learn the language of their adopted country, while their children born there mostly make it their first language or become bilingual from the start.
Mother tongue, native speaker, first language, bilingual, multilingual or polyglot and lingua franca
Some simple definitions of basic concepts about language used in this article:
mother tongue: language a person learnt at home (usually from parents);
native speaker: language spoken since birth;
first language: language best spoken;
bilingualism: speaking two languages equally well;
multilingualism or polyglot: being able to speak several languages;
lingua franca: language between persons not sharing the same mother tongue;
An indicative, small scale survey done among African Diaspora/Dutch and other mixed nationality families of the Scots International Church Rotterdam (www.scotsintchurch.com ) gave interesting, but not unexpected results. While the first language of the mostly African Diasporans varied between English, Bayangi, Igbo, Afrikaans and Pidgin-English, they spoke mostly English and/or Dutch with their partners. With their children they used mostly Dutch and/or English, while the children’s first language was almost without exception Dutch. Many children were growing up bilingual, with their parents being polyglot, as native languages as Twi, Akan, Bali, Bayangi, Papiamento and Pidgin should be counted as well. However these languages are more frequently used by the parents only with the children using Dutch or English. The exception to this is Pidgin which is a lingua franca between Anglophone Cameroonians and other West Africans as some Nigerians and Ghanaians. Because of the limited scale the survey results cannot be extrapolated but confirm with random information.
What language do you speak at home?
Mixed families, particularly in urban areas of Holland are on the increase. It is commonly mentioned that nearly half of the population of Rotterdam is of non-western origin, though that may not be entirely correct. The demographics in the report ‘Staat van Rotterdam’ of 2007 put it at 45%, though the trend of decrease of the indigenous (Dutch) population is indicated to continue. This naturally also increases the mix of languages being spoken and used between groups of the population, though Dutch does remains the main language and even the lingua franca in practice. Another effect of this Dutch domination, especially in migrants families is that the ethnic language is not passed on, as children may be able to understand and speak the language to some extent but not enough to retain it. The knowledge will most likely disappear in one or two generations.
How important is language.
Language is essential for human communication and is further refined by intonation, enhanced by changes of volume in speech and of course facial expression, gestures and body language. Sign language is a great help in communicating with deaf and mute people but they may often miss the refinement mentioned above. Talking on the phone is great but video conferencing via e.g. Skype is next to the real thing, meeting face to face.
About forty years ago I travelled on the Trans-Siberian from Vladivostok to Moscow with other international travellers, but also with many Russian Navy marines. I had taught myself a handful of Russian words and phrases from a dictionary. However discussing politics with these sailors at the height of the Cold War was reduced to utmost basics and mostly gesturing. Sharing vodka and chocolate proved better communication!
The ‘forbidden experiment’, nevertheless tried, also confirms the importance of language.
In a bone-chilling example Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor (1194-1250), ordered some orphans to be brought to the palace where they should be observed while being brought up. He arranged every kind of physical care for the babies, but banned any kind of verbal or emotional physical contact. Thus he tried to find out which language the infants would speak naturally. It was expected that it would be Hebrew, Greek or Latin, formerly regarded as the original languages. But it was none of these languages nor was it the language of the children’s parents - the children did not speak any language at all: they died.
Learning and speaking a ‘foreign’ language
There are several ways to learn to ‘a foreign’, correction, other language or your native language. The most natural one is of course from birth as ‘mother tongue’, as mentioned above, but it is no surprise if I say: you can do that only once. Speaking a language is one thing however all, even the ‘mother tongue’, will need some theoretical tuition in order to achieve literacy in a language as well. In ‘total immersion’ the target language is also the language of instruction, while in other methods the new language is the subject matter. There are many other ways to learn a language, with or without technical gadgets like language lab, internet or even direct distant earning by a native speaker through Skype.
Personally I have learnt languages other than my mother tongue Dutch at college, as English, French and German. I mastered Swahili (a language spoken by more than 50 mln. people in East Africa) partly by instruction, self study and in practice. Speaking Dholuo, the language of the Luo tribe living around Lake Victoria, came to me mostly by total immersion and some self study. Pidgin (-English) is a purely spoken language, as mentioned earlier used in Anglophone West Africa, which I acquired purely by listening and practice in total immersion. Finally I managed to speak some basic Amharic a main Ethiopian language by self study and practice. In my opinion, really speaking a language means you think in the language and not translates in your head. In that way you also assume the cultural ethnicity and diversity of the language, which results in expressing more than just the language.
Maintaining languages is another thing altogether and includes using them and increasing ones vocabulary, which for me with seven or eight is of course impossible.
On another level, maintaining the migrants’ home language is a different matter altogether. With children born in Holland in a mixed marriage the minority language is often not passed on as the above mentioned survey shows.
There is no clear definition of what it means to "speak a language". A tourist who can handle a simple conversation with a waiter may be completely lost when it comes to discussing current affairs or even using multiple tenses. A diplomat or businessman who can handle complicated negotiations in a foreign language may not be able to write a simple letter correctly. A four-year-old French child would usually be said to "speak French fluently", but it is possible that he cannot handle the grammar as well as even some mediocre foreign students of the language do and may have a very limited vocabulary despite possibly having perfect pronunciation. On the other hand, it is quite common that even very highly accomplished linguists may speak the language(s) of which they are experts with a distinct accent and to have gaps in their active vocabulary when it comes to everyday topics and situations.
Advantages of being bi- or multilingual
A serious misconception in the past had it that learning two languages at the same time would be detrimental to a child’s cognitive capability. They would simply not able to manage both equally well. Fortunately we know better now and are even used to children picking up two or even more languages at the same time with ease. Nonetheless it is paramount when parents or/and other family members speak different languages, that each uses always the same language with the child. This ‘trick’ avoids an infant of delaying his start of cognitive speech.
Bilingual speakers are better able to deal with distractions than those who speak only a single language, and that may help offset age-related declines in mental performance, researchers say. Research has also shown that bilingualism is beneficial for children’s development and their future. Children exposed to different languages become more aware of different cultures, other people and other points of view. But they also tend to be better than monolinguals at 'multitasking' and focusing attention, they often are more precocious readers, and generally find it easier to learn other languages. Bilingualism gives children much more than two languages! I could mention more advantages as cognitive benefits, curriculum advantages, cultural benefits, employment advantages, communication advantages and tolerance of other languages and cultures. Then there is also better self-esteem and reportedly better performance at IQ tests.
What language you speak at home depends on your family situation and will naturally be what you are most comfortable with; you are after all at home. However parents in a bilingual or multilingual situation should give it some thought.
Language is after all a living resource, therefore almost every language keeps changing, adopting new vocabulary and of course adding to its literature. Not just bilingualism, but multilingualism is continually increasing, but does it come with the cultural ethnicity and diversity too?
Scotland is a multilingual country where, according to a recent survey, at least 106 different languages are spoken. In a population of over 5 million, this wide range of languages holds significant potential for cultural diversity, economic opportunity, and enriched education. However, are we prepared to celebrate linguistic and cultural diversity?
*Ato Bob is a former Dutch Diplomat who now consults with various NGO’s on African issues. He lives in Rotterdam and may be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org