The increasingly global nature of work means more of us are living overseas. According to a 2018 report there are over 66 million expats working worldwide, which it defines as anyone living in another country for between 12 months and five years.
Over the years bringing up three children in Bahrain I’ve had the good fortune to meet many of their friends and their parents. The upbringing in Bahrain has been for the whole family a wonderful experience, particularly the opportunity to meet and make friends with people from all over the world.
Many of the children I’ve met have parents of different nationality and in many cases, this has resulted in one of the mother tongues not being passed on to the next generation. This can be painful. Not sharing your first language with your loved ones is hard. Not passing it on to your own children can be particularly tough.
Many long-term expatriates must deal with the fact that language, a core part of who and what they are, withers and dies because they live in a foreign country. This problem is exacerbated in environments where English is a very dominant language. Typically, long-term expatriate children of mixed marriages become monolingual in English often struggling to communicate with grandparents and other family members.
In some cases, governments actively discourage the use of foreign languages to encourage more conformity and oneness. Issues such as this and others conspire to ensure that many children lose a parent’s language or never even learn it in the beginning.
Another pressure comes from schools where teachers discourage parents from using their language when talking to their children especially if their language lacks prestige. Many parents reluctantly comply worried that if they do not take the teacher’s advice they will negatively affect their education.
This is so sad as mastering two languages is not a problem for young children. Research shows that bilinguals are more capable when it comes to complex tasks, are better at maintaining attention and in later life suffer from dementia much later.
A child with parents from different cultures with different languages has a much richer heritage and fully capitalising on this richness is something to be encouraged rather than something to be suppressed. In this ever more complex world with everyone from across the globe travelling and mixing culture, and especially language is something to celebrate and share.
Children who grow up in an environment where different cultures are equally supported and different languages spoken are much more able to deal with this more complex and intertwined world.
A few days ago, I had a conversation with a young man who has an English mother and a Bahraini father. I shared with him my thoughts on this matter and I’m delighted to tell you he fully agrees with me and has been fortunate to grow up bilingual. He talked about the richness in the Arabic language that is not replicated in English allowing him to share thoughts and emotions in a way he could never if he only spoke English.
Languages are an intimate part of identity and are not just other things to be drilled into a young mind but a matter of the heart.