The latest adventures of Astérix and Obélix take our two favourite Gauls across the Channel to what was about to become the besieged island province of Britannia. The film, Asterix et Obelix au service de sa majesté, abounds with Franco-British clichés that make us grin and giggle, and off course, language is not spared: when the Queen’s emissary requests the magique potion, Obélix, confused, asks his fellow countrymen: Pourquoi il parle à l’envers?
When children grow up with two or more languages, they are confronted with conflicting language systems from a very young age; for example, adjective-noun word order in English and French is the complete opposite; some sounds are similar yet distinctly different (met, mat, mutt); some are completely dissimilar (the English “th”, the Arabic “ain”, the clicking sounds of African languages ); naming an object or concept is arbitrary (dog can be chien, hund, cão, perro); story books are read from left to right, right to left, top to bottom or bottom to top as they decipher the secrets of diverse writing scripts. Navigating these tumultuous linguistic oceans becomes second nature for a bilingual.
Bilingual children develop a greater sensitivity to language as their thinking about the structure of their languages is both conscious and subconscious. They don’t translate, they inhabit both language systems, yet they can manipulate different elements to communicate appropriately in any given context. However, their languages aren’t separated by sleuths or language-proof gates – they are forever present and accessible, allowing for sophisticated associations, comparisons and combinations. Like an automatic weaving machine, picking threads by colour and texture, to produce that desired pattern, bilinguals move to and fro between the words, sounds and structures of their languages to produce the homogenous pattern of monolingual speech or the multi-textured utterances of bilingual discourse.
Being bilingual develops children’s metalinguistic awareness, which is the ability to analyse language, to think and talk about language and thus make appropriate language choices. It also improves understanding of the mother language(s) and develops the ability to learn other languages as they identify similarities and variation and distinguish between the two. For example, Portuguese and Spanish are mutually intelligible, and the meaning of unknown words can be easily inferred: Con 5 dólares no se puede hacer gran cosa / Com cinco dolares, não se pode fazer gande coisa. My knowledge of Portuguese helped me appreciate French verb conjugation and Afrikaans helped me understand the past tense in German (the auxiliary “het/hat” kicks the past participle to the end of the sentence).
As bilinguals learn by making associations and complex connections, adding to their language repertoire is no problem. In the My Languages Project conducted at the British Council, it was amazing how many of our bilingual students finished their report by saying they wanted to learn other languages, and not just any languages! One eleven-year-old student, who already speaks 3 languages, wrote: “I would like to learn Chinese, Japanese, Arabic.” Being bilingual makes you confident language learning conquerors!