Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why bother with the crazy elf language?

The Grape and I speak Finnish exclusively when nobody else is around, and I try to keep it up when others are in ear shot as well. I find myself providing a running narration for onlookers, such as the Grape's preschool teacher. "I just told him that I'll see him after school," I explain after saying my goodbyes in Finnish, which someone in my family - I can't recall who - dubbed the "crazy elf language" years ago.

Finnish, unlike the Romance, Germanic or Scandinavian languages, is utterly incomprehensible to English speakers. It's therefore unlikely to serve the Grape in any significant manner, unless he wishes to converse with really elderly Finns or plan a career as a Finnish game show host. He won't need it to navigate Helsinki, since every Finn below a certain age speaks some English. Before I started my mission to inflict the crazy elf language on my kid, I used my Finnish while in Finland, when writing to Finnish friends and as a not-really-that-neat party trick.

Furthermore, it's an uphill battle to impart an obscure tongue spoken by less than six million people. English is everywhere, though I make an effort to translate many of our picture books, and to repeat the Grape's utterances in Finnish when he makes a remark in English. A guy at a party once asked me why I bother. "Wouldn't it be better to teach your kid Mandarin?" he asked, seemingly puzzled. I told him I don't know Mandarin and he muttered something about that being beside the point.

Except it's not. It's hard enough to have two languages going at all times. I can't imagine trying to learn Chinese along with my toddler. I presume such a folly would prove a total non-starter, since adult and child language acquisition work differently. Children learn through immersion, context and experience. That works for adults, too, but adults can also learn by drilling grammar and vocabulary.

The critical difference in my admittedly anecdotal experience: children who grow up in bilingual households think (and dream) in both languages. Kids who learn a language in school rarely do. Those who achieve total fluency without the benefit of immersion do so after many hours of hard work. Most people I've met in this situation say they rarely think in the second language. Their minds just get super fast at translation.

Kids exposed from the get go don't struggle with thinking, talking and expressing ideas in either language. And there's some evidence that bi-lingual kids may have an easier time acquiring third, fourth and more languages. Juggling two or more tongues from the start seems to activate some part of the brain that monolingual people don't really use. A different study earlier in the year noted that people who speak multiple languages are less likely to suffer from Alzheimer's disease.

Yesterday the New York Times reported something that moms in my shoes already know: babies react early on to the languages they hear regularly. Um, duh. Like any multilingual person, a very young child's ears prick up when he detects familiar sounds. Even before they're verbal, kids can be bilingual.

The Grape is fully bilingual. He spends a lot of time translating things for R., and he pays attention to the language being used by others before choosing which one to deploy. He talks in his sleep, in both languages. And when he doesn't get what he wants by using one, he'll always try asking in the other. He speaks each language without an accent from the other. I'm hopeful the phonetic skills will stay with him, even if the omnipresent English eventually takes over.

Once in a while, someone asks why I bother with Finnish. I don't have an easy answer. Sure, it would be nice to think I'm inoculating my kid against dementia or ensuring an easy A for him in high school French, but the body of research isn't so cut and dry. So I'm left with, it's just what we do. I speak it, so why wouldn't I want my kid to have the same ability? Maybe it's some primordial urge to connect one's offspring with their roots, to have a connection to the rapidly dying older generation. Maybe it's an instinct that more is somehow better. I really can't say, but I'd love to hear from other families where one parent is bilingual and the other isn't. Why do you teach the second language to your kids? Or why not?

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