Bilingual from Birth: The Catalan Advantage

A bilingual childhood: does it slow down your learning or enhance your future?

Since arriving here in Catalonia, I’ve become very jealous of the children I’m surrounded by. From birth, they grow up with two languages, except in very rare cases such as the smaller villages, where you will only hear Catalan spoken. Whilst the children usually speak in Catalan up to the age of eight or so, they begin to make a switch to Spanish roughly around this time, as, from my experience, they seem to learn Castillian Spanish rather as a second language, with Catalan being the choice of many parents as a first. I’ve always thought it impressive, that so many millions of people have two languages as their disposition, and can change at the drop of a hat. But does it hinder your learning in the long run? Sure, as adults, you can converse in both languages, and write equally well with both – although occasionally, as some have told me, when you forget a word in Spanish or in Catalan, it won’t come back to you. That even happens to me in English sometimes: I went for two weeks recently trying to remember the word ‘co-operation’, so I understand how that feels. However, when one is young, can it just be confusing? Or does it provide children with more skills to live in an international world?

I have seen teachers marking the older children’s Spanish homework, and the desperation is apparent. Of course, it’s not going to be perfect, they’re only eleven and twelve, so everything is a work in progress. Whether it’s a reflection on the confusion between the languages, or a reflection of how the school system often fails children nowadays, I’m not sure. You can see mixed spellings, the ‘x’ being used regularly in words (as it isn’t in Spanish), sound and syllable confusion, accents left out or added to letters that they shouldn’t be hovering over, along with many more. Perhaps I sound harsh: but I’m not criticising, I just find it interesting to see a child’s development and how their brain works when it has to combine two languages at once. There are also many children in the school who have parents from different parts of the world: we have Belgians, Dutch, English, American, German, French, and many more. What I find most interesting about this is the fact that these children are actually more capable at writing and speaking bilingually, trilingually, or however many languages they speak. One girl in 4é speaks six languages – her father is Dutch, she speaks English, her mother is Spanish, she speaks Catalan at school, and somewhere along the way, she picked up German, too, which I think is astounding for an eight year old, especially when she makes fewer mistakes than her classmates. How is it that knowing only two languages becomes more confusing that knowing six?

I am sure little Maria's bookshelf looks something like this.

One of my friend’s host families over here has a little boy, adopted from another country. The family speak solely Catalan at home, and of course at school Catalan is the language – so she is finding it rather difficult to communicate with the little boy, as she is fluent in Spanish: whilst he knows very little, if any, whatsoever. I find this fascinating – imagine, a girl from England speaks better Spanish than a boy who has lived here for a significant period of time. Catalonia is really an interesting place. I enjoy the culture, and really respect the language, but from a language-learning point of view, it hasn’t been the best place for me to learn Spanish. I myself am confused: of course, neither is my mother tongue, and I’m twenty-two, so it’s going to be more of a challenge for someone like me, but I find myself conversing in Spanish, then letting slip with some Catalan. How many times must this happen for those who reside here? Particularly when a lot of the phrases are similar and quite easily mixed up in the mind – if not easier to say at times (case in point: ‘Yo también’, in Spanish, meaning ‘me too’, is ‘Jo també’ in Catalan, which just happens to roll off the tongue more easily, even when speaking Castillian to someone’). Another thing that I find frustrating is the mixed message I get from people: they’re so keen for me to learn Catalan, and congratulate me when I use a phrase or applaud, like it’s the most amazing thing in the universe. But then, upon occasion, with some, when I use a Catalan phrase, they tell me ‘oh, you don’t need to know that, it’s Catalan’, so I try my hardest to forget it, or learn the alternative, which really doesn’t help matters for me linguistically. When one concentrates on trying to forget something, it manages to attach itself to your brain like a mollusc, clinging on for dear life. I know how to count more in Catalan than I do in Spanish, purely because I’ve tried so many times to banish it from my mind, ineffectively.

So confusing, it might make you want to wail like this, at times.

The family I currently am staying with are fantastic: they really help me with my Spanish, and, upon occasion, Catalan. They are a very bilingual family themselves. The father is German, the mother, Catalan, and of course, living in Spain, they speak Castillian, too. They both learned English for work purposes and at school, and speak this relatively fluently. The father is currently taking a course in French. Catalan is largely spoken at home, along with German, and they switch regularly, which you would think would be more confusing for me. Not so. In this family, I’ve learned more Spanish than I managed to pick up in the full three months I was here before Christmas. I’ve only been here four weeks and linguistically I’d begin to say I’m now able to have a conversation, and move onto different tenses. There are times around the dinner table we can be conversing in four languages, and this doesn’t bother me one bit, or make my brain ache in the slightest. Perhaps the way to expose children to language and make them learn faster, with less confusion, is clearly to bombard them with different languages from all corners of the world. They say children are like ‘sponges’ here, and they absorb everything with ease. I don’t find that to be true. Children need to question, to work around things they have difficulty with: they don’t just accept things to be the absolute truth, they need to know why, and how, and when things are working correctly.

Want your children to learn a language properly? Marry a foreigner, move to a completely different (possibly already bilingual) country, speak all the possible languages you can muster, and everything should turn out dandy. So, when I finally meet my Spanish heartthrob, Wales it is, then.

Don't mind if I do...