Bilingual Babies

Emma Howarth talks French, Dutch and Mandarin with the families determined to ensure their children learn the lingo. Photography by Priscilla Gragg.

Envy is an emotion I generally try to avoid, but sit me in a Greek island taverna while my bilingual husband waxes lyrical with the waiter and I come over totally green-eyed. The UK is a multilingual society (20 per cent of the UK’s primary school children use English as an additional language) yet when we land on sunny foreign shores this summer, most of us will be fumbling for our phrasebooks.

Despite the introduction of foreign languages as a statutory Key Stage Two subject in 2014 (meaning children now start learning at seven rather than 11), Britain’s linguistic skills continue to lag behind the rest of Europe. And with three-quarters of British adults unable to hold a conversation in a language other than English, the stereotype of the monolingual Brit feels less outdated joke, more sad reality.

That might sound sobering but for many parents it’s also a call to action. As the benefits of bilingualism become more well known, many parents are determined to ensure their children master a second language, regardless of whether they themselves are native speakers.

You’ll have seen them around. They’re the ones singing “Baa, baa oveja negra” at pre-school Spanish classes, enrolling their children at French nurseries or hiring a Mandarin-speaking nanny the second they have to go back to work. You might even be one of them. I am.

My enthusiasm for languages massively outweighs my skill, but my husband and I have been reading Greek translations of The Hungry Caterpillar (him), cramming a whole new 24-letter alphabet (me) and paying for weekly Greek lessons since well before our daughters became old enough to complain about them. It’s not just about them being able to order their own moussaka – language acquisition has other benefits, too.

“Bilingual children don’t just benefit from being able to communicate in an additional language,” says Antonella Sorace, Professor of Developmental Linguistics at Edinburgh University and director of community outreach project Bilingualism Matters. “It also helps them to understand other cultures and points of view. Studies have also found that speaking more than one language increases a child’s ability to pay attention. This applies particularly to fluent bilinguals but also to children who are in the process of learning another language. The presence of that additional language stimulates ability to focus, ignore irrelevant information and switch between tasks.”

Professor Sorace is keen to point out that these benefits are not automatic or universal but believes it is important that parents know they exist. “By encouraging your child to learn another language, you are putting them in a position where they may benefit from these advantages,” she says.

There is also research to suggest that being bilingual actually changes the way the brain develops. A 2015 study by Georgetown University in the US found that bilingual individuals actually have more grey matter in the executive control region of their brains. It’s no surprise then that bilingual children often go on to find themselves at an advantage in the job market or that, further down the line, being bilingual can even delay the onset of dementia.

Sold on the above? Wishing you’d married an Italian? Fear not! Helping your child to become bilingual might be easier to achieve if one parent (ideally their primary carer) is a native speaker, but there’s no magic formula. With the right environment, the children of non-native speakers can also benefit massively from learning a language.

“There’s no perfect way to learn a language,” says Professor Sorace. “The most important thing to do is make learning interactive. There are lots of online resources available, but if you are not a native speaker, then finding someone to speak the language to your child is the most important step. The more your child hears the language the better, so taking an active interest and finding a community of native speakers – however small – is invaluable.”

When Esther van de Paal, Co-Founder of the Babyccino shopping portal, left the UK to return to her native Netherlands in 2007, she was determined to find a way to continue to immerse her eldest daughter, Sara, in the English language.

“Sara was three when we returned to Amsterdam and spoke fluent English at the time. We wanted to find a way for her – and our younger/future children – to develop these skills even though we speak Dutch at home,” she says.

For van de Paal, the solution was enrolling Sara in the nursery of the British School of Amsterdam, where she was taught in English for a year, until she started at a Dutch school aged four.

“We always speak Dutch at home, but we often read to our children in English,” she says. “And if they want to watch television or movies, we only allow them to in English.”

It worked. All the van de Paal children (except new baby Bram) are able to communicate in English as well as Dutch, and Sara (now 12), who has just started learning French and German at school, is finding adding those languages easier than many of her friends.

Mother-of-four Jo Mihajlovic experienced a similar scenario when returning home to the UK from France where her eldest daughters were born. “We wanted them to be able to communicate in the language of the country where they started out, but we’re not native speakers,” she says. “We’ve managed to keep up their skills with weekly lessons and choose French-speaking babysitters. The girls aren’t fluent but they can easily communicate and have accents to die for.”

Of course, you don’t even need a connection to a country to want your child to learn its language. Essex-based teaching assistant Sara-Jayne Sims has no family connections to China but chose to enroll her daughter in Mandarin classes at the age of five.

“We knew Mandarin was the most widely spoken language in the world and an increasingly sought-after skill, so when our daughter showed an interest we enrolled her at a local Chinese School. She’s been going to lessons every Saturday for four years now, and she absolutely loves it. It’s proven a great decision so far.”

Of course, sometimes despite the best of intentions the goal of language fluency doesn’t quite work out as planned. Student Kelly Samuel was nine when her parents decided to invest in Mandarin lessons. “I was already learning English, French and Spanish, and too young to appreciate the advantage adding Mandarin might have given me. I’m not a fluent Mandarin speaker by any stretch, but it has given me a deeper appreciation of Chinese culture I might not otherwise have.”

These sorts of benefits are exactly what Professor Sorace wants to make parents more aware of. “Awareness of different cultures, views and ways of thinking is an achievement in itself,” she says. “Even if your child’s proficiency seems low that situation can change. Your child might end up living abroad one day and build upon the foundations they acquired earlier on.

“It’s also important to remember that it is never too late. You can learn a language very well even if you start as an adult. Children learn in different ways depending on their level of cognitive development. It all counts!”

Fluent or otherwise, there’s nothing that galvanizes language skills better than putting those hard-learned phrases into practice. So wherever you’re headed this summer, make sure you encourage your children to say gracias to the waiter, order their own gelato or even just proffer enthusiastic kalimeras to the entire population of Crete. And while you’re getting horizontal on that Riviera sun lounger, why not brush up that GCSE French?;


Alex Nicoletti, Director of Children’s language Portal Lil’Ollo has five top tips for linguistic success.

From birth until seven, children have an amazing capacity to learn languages. No time is too early to start. Kick things off with simple words, colourful images and catchy music.

You do not need to be fluent or even confident at speaking a second language for your children to learn. They do, however, need to spend time with a native or fluent speaker.This could be at a language class, childcare or playgroup.

Why not start learning at the same time as your children? Don’t worry about pronouncing everything perfectly; getting started together is far better than not starting at all.

Children learn best through play and that also applies to learning a second language. Make it fun with engaging interactive games. There’s a free games guide full of ideas available at Lil’Ollo.

We all learn in different ways and children are no exception. Try not to push young children into games and activities they don’t enjoy. Positive associations with learning languages at an early age mean children are more likely to carry on into adulthood.


Lil’ollo’s beautifully designed bilingual flash cards come with imaginative game guides for lingo-based fun.

Add one of Brain Box’s addictive Let’s Learn language games to your in-flight entertainment stash this summer.

New York-based record label Putumayo creates world music compilations with children in mind.

Language classes and groups for babies and children are popping up all over the country. The Lingotot franchise has a UK-wide network of classes.

One Third Stories boxes include books that start in English, end in French or Spanish, and teachkey words along the way.

Fingerprint’s Kids Learn Mandarin app is packed with fun games for children aged two to eight.

Duolingo’s online learning resource is brilliant for older children. Choose lessons in everything from Swedish to Swahili.

Daradam’s aesthetically pleasing cards, games and building blocks are just the ticket for future Arabic speakers.