In the UAE, where people from all over the world and all walks of life come together, proper communication is crucial. Experts say raising bilingual or multilingual children today is relevant to promote cultural understanding, diversity, and long-term personal development.
Christine Jacob, Head of Languages at the Swiss International Scientific School Dubai (SISD), says most parents in the UAE already speak more than one language and kids learning different languages is only natural and should be highly encouraged.
“It helps us all to live and work together here. Everywhere on the planet, children share the same music, books, movies,” she explains. “They are also travelling more than the older generations. They are curious about new languages and eager to learn new words, expressions.”
Jacob enumerates the benefits of multilingualism: better at focusing on relevant information and ignoring distractions; more creative and better at planning; students have an easier time understanding math concepts and solving word problems; and according to research bilingualism may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s also advantageous in the labour market.
Jacob says being able to speak French, German and English opened opportunities for her and her kids. “They say they love feeling at home everywhere they’re travelling.”
But some would argue that growing up speaking two or more languages may confuse the child and can delay speech. Jacob sheds light on this: “As different language systems are connected, a child ‘mixes’ two different languages.
“It can happen when a word is missing in one language, and the child will replace it by a word in the other language. This kind of mistake is not a proof of confusion, but shows how the language systems are developing.”
She adds it’s never too late to learn: “The success depends on the regular exposure to the language, on the environments and language inputs.
“However, research admits learning an additional language as a young child allows a better accent and pronunciation.”
Parents Elisabeth and Leo Lefort speak their native French, English, a bit of German, Spanish and occasional Amharic (Ethiopian dialect) to their kids. “Multiculturalism, language being one aspect, will definitely help them collaborate, think creatively, look at things with multiple point of views,” says Elisabeth, who is a French teacher in SISD.
But they also place importance on preserving their mother tongue. Leo, also a teacher, adds: “Research shows the mother tongue is of high importance in supporting a child’s linguistic acquisition.
“We usually mix bedtime stories in English or French. Same for films, we prefer original versions of cartoons and curate very carefully other programmes they may enjoy watching.”
Having lived in Canada, Rima Ayoub’s children’s first language is English. But as Canadian-Lebanese, it’s crucial for them to learn Arabic. She says private tutoring is expensive but very helpful: “It’s important for them to have that skill so they can communicate with family whenever we are in Lebanon. We always practice Arabic at home. They are still so young that’s why I think it’s important to start them early so they might do better as they get older.”
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