Rise of the polyglots

Opinions - October 13th, 2013
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By Brian Christian, Principal of The British School in Tokyo

When I listen to some of my British and American friends, it is sometimes all too easy to imagine that they genuinely believe that foreign languages have been fiendishly devised for the sole purpose of poking fun at those of us who can only speak English. I’m sure we’ve all met graduates of the shout and wave your arms about School of Languages, or those who seem proud to proclaim that they have lived in Japan for years and never got beyond biru o kudasai. These gaijin stereotypes certainly exist and probably always will, but the changing times are bringing changing attitudes and the rise of the polyglot is well under way.

Take Sean, for example. He is just 10 years old. He began his formal education in Morocco, moved to Brazil at the age of six and has now been in Tokyo for just over a year. His mother is Polish and his father Irish – they met in Austria. When Sean started going to school in Morocco the language of instruction was French, in Rio de Janeiro it was Portuguese and now, at the British School in Tokyo, his lessons are all in English. Like all of his classmates, he studies Japanese and French but his mother is also determined that he should master her native tongue because, among other things, it’s important that he can converse and build a relationship with his Polish grandparents. As he grows up there’s every chance that Sean will become reasonably fluent in at least five languages. After all, his mum speaks six.

International families with a global itinerant life-style are an increasingly common phenomenon. There are tens of thousands of third-culture kids, like Sean, in schools all over the world and so many of them feel comfortable expressing themselves in a range of different languages.

Surely this has to be a good thing? An understanding of language leads to an appreciation of community and culture. When young people can develop such an appreciation as a natural element of their international upbringing they must, just as naturally, learn to stand in the shoes of others and to see the world from a range of different perspectives.

I am sure that this is true, but for all the positives there are pitfalls too. For many dual-nationality families the language question is a difficult one. Most of the advice suggests that parents should each communicate with their children in their own language if they hope for them to be bilingual but this isn’t easy, particularly if one parent has no real grasp of the other’s native tongue. It’s all too easy to take short-cuts.

Then there’s the risk of wasted school-time. Research tells us that, although language acquisition comes quite naturally to younger children, they also tend to lose language very quickly if it is no longer used regularly. This is particularly true of the under-fives. How much time should parents invest in helping their children to keep up with their skills when they move on; and to what extent might time spent in this way have a detrimental effect on progress in other areas as a child tries to settle in at a new school? It can be a battle too. A young teenager who is already working hard to keep up with the demands of teachers is not likely to say thank you to the parent who arranges extra language lessons after school. It seems to be an unwritten universal rule that these extra lessons always clash with football practice!

That said, I have never met an adult who has retained a sense of resentment about being made to learn a language. In fact the opposite is true. Along with I wish I’d never been allowed to give up piano lessons, the expression of regret I hear most often is I wish I’d kept up my French (Spanish, Polish, Japanese…). The life of a polyglot has its complications, but the advantages far outweigh them.