Rolf Anderson > Bilingualism in Children
Parents Support Language Learning
There is a large body of evidence which suggests that people who speak two languages do so without any reduction in vocabulary in their maternal or native language. Outside the United States it is quite common for people to speak two or even three languages. The ease with which a person acquires a second language is determined largely by the age at which that person is exposed to the sounds of a foreign language. Important neural connections that facilitate language learning are created when a child hears more than one language prior to the age of two. Parents can greatly influence a child's future ability to learn a second language by exposing their child to the sounds of a second language even if the parent has little ability themselves in that second language.
I must have inherited some of my facility with languages from my father, Leroy Anderson. Dad grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the son of Swedish immigrants: Bror Anton Anderson and Anna Margareta Jönson. His parents spoke both Swedish and English. They spoke Swedish when they wanted to keep their sons Leroy and Russell from understanding what they were saying. Eventually the two boys began to understand their parents. When Bror and Anna realized this, they decided to speak Swedish at home and English in public.
Although my parents spoke English with each other and with us all the time, we always knew how much Dad enjoyed languages. At supper time he enjoyed announcing in French "le diner est servi" which was soon followed by "bon appetit". When Dad sneezed it was often in a suite of three. They were followed by "Gusendheit," "Noch ein mal," and "Mach das drei" respectively. When he left the table he would usually say to Mom in Swedish "Tak for matten." These simple phrases belied the fact that Dad spoke 9 languages. Mom's French was good enough - good vocabulary and grammar, and a passable midwestern American French accent. I know that I was much more enthusiastic about learning French in school, knowing that my parents could speak a foreign language. I often wonder how much better my own language skills would be if I had started hearing and speaking a second language when I was very young.
A Trilingual Family
Living in Belgium was a very special experience for me. So many things went into making it special. Perhaps the most significant was that I was living on the border between Flanders where Flemish is spoken and Wallonia where French is spoken. My neighborhood was a mixed ethnic area. The majority of the neighbors were French speaking Walloons. Their dialect called Wallon was almost unintelligible to me. Fortunately they could almost all speak better French which they called "le bon francais." I could understand this more standard french. I lived with a Flemish family who spoke Flemish, a dialect of Dutch, with each other. They could also speak French which is how we communicated. None of them spoke English, although Remi, the husband, could speak a few phrases.
It was fascinating to live with a family who spoke a language that I did not understand at all and then to have them speak another language with me that was the second language for all of us. Since our neighbors were mostly native speakers of French I came to identify with my family in an odd way - even though they were native-born Belgians, we were all foreigners in a sense in this neighborhood. What added to this sense was the fact that I resembled these people. Two of my grandparents came from Sweden, one from Germany and another from England. Everyone told me that I looked European. I have to say that after one year in Belgium I felt half Belgian. After the following two years in Germany, I felt quite European.
Building Bridges through Shared Language
From all my reading prior to living in Europe I had embraced the idea that one could build bridges across cultural divides by learning the language of the country that was going to visit. Well that happened in a big way for me. I knew about WW II from history books and from my father who had served in U.S. Army Counter Intelligence in Iceland.
But here in Belgium my neighbors told me stories about the war that brought tears to their eyes; about the German invasion, the fighting and the deaths. I listened for hours as each neighbor over tea and cookies would tell their stories. Out of 16 families in my neighborhood, 12 men had died. I looked at the framed photos of the handsome young men, mourning their deaths. My neighbors told me that I was the first American that any of them had ever met since the end of the war. They said that they never had the chance to thank the United States for restoring their freedom. They thanked me. I accepted their gratitude with a greater feeling of responsibility for representing our country than I could ever have possibly imagined only a year earlier. I was incredibly humbled and knew that we, my neighbors and I, could never have shared this experience if I did not speak French. That's because none of these people spoke English.
When I told my family that I was leaving Belgium to go to Germany, the news spread around the neighborhood quickly. Within a few days, the neighbors had scheduled my going-away parties. I was to visit five families each of three evenings. It had been all worked out. They had made a plan for me. I couldn't say no. It was so incredibly moving to feel how accepted I had become. This was my first real appreciation of how an outsider, a young person from another country, could come to a very small, tightly knit neighborhood and become accepted as "an American cousin" to them all. To say that I had built a bridge was not entirely correct. Although I was the one who had learned their language, it felt as though my Belgian neighbors had done most of the work. I know that I could never have become so close to these good people had I not learned to speak French.
Christophe is Trilingual
Of the two young sons of Remi and Christiane Craeye, the older son Vincent went to school in French. He was 6 at the time. He was bilingual (Flemish/French) and was my translator when I was trying to understand his younger brother Christophe who only spoke Flemish. Christophe was 2. He spoke Flemish baby-ish. I really couldn't understand that dialect. Later Vincent took over the farm and Christophe went on to pursue a Phd at the University of Leuven. His Flemish, French and English are all excellent. He is a scientist, specializing in radio-telemetry. I know from the experience of growing up with a multilingual father and seeeing this fine young Belgian man mature into three languages, that the acquisition of three languages comes without any loss of vocabulary in the original mother tongue. So many people in Europe can speak three languages, why shouldn't we Americans speak two ?
- Rolf Anderson
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