Dad’s polyglots – a recipe

cookbookA father recently sought my advice about the linguistic education of his two young children. Among the many friendly and interesting emails I get from readers of Lingo, this one really stood out, because his was a question I’d never given much thought to before. Our brief correspondence is reproduced below, anonymised, very lightly edited and, of course, with the father’s permission.

Gaston,

I just finished reading Lingo and wanted to extend my compliments. I’m recommending it to all my friends interested in languages. (I’m American, so unfortunately I can count all these folks on one hand).

I’d like to put a question to you. I have two children under the age of 5, and am interested in giving them the gift of a portfolio of languages while they’re still young enough to learn them very easily. But I want to choose wisely.

They’re already getting English and Chinese, but I’m wondering what other languages might be attractive (and if there is a preferred order in learning them). For example, is there a Romance language that commands a middle ground such that once learned, the other Romance languages can be easily acquired? The same goes for a middle-ground Slavic language, etc. German appears to be an interesting choice because it’s relatively widely used, and once mastered, the Scandinavian languages and Dutch seem to fall in line without too much of a fight.

I’m also interested in getting my kids exposed to a good diversity of grammar and sounds before my kids’ abilities to effortlessly internalize these things wither and die.

Thanks in advance for any perspective you might be able to provide and again, congratulations on an excellent book!

J

———-

Hi J,

Thanks for your email, so full of praise and interest.

I will try to answer your question, but please realise that asking other people like me the same question might well result in as many different answers. Also, I feel – without being a father myself – that children develop best if they can play to their hearts’ delight and choose from options offered to them, rather than by strong stimulation of some skills over others. Having said that, I do wish my parents had made me study the piano…

Chinese is certainly a wonderful choice, for a whole range of reasons: a tonal language (very useful) with a massive number of speakers, a highly un-English and typical East Asian grammar and a script that requires a lot of exercise and which gives a degree of access to Japanese. German is a very good choice, as, to my mind, would be Spanish. This last one may sound rather bland from a US perspective, but it is both the largest and a fairly typical Romance language, much more so than French.  I’m not sure about the Slavic languages. Russian is obviously the largest by far, but I don’t know how typical it is. Still, probably the best choice. Farther afield, I’m even less sure. Hindi? Very many speakers, but English will see one through in India. Arabic? Nearly as hard as Chinese, an exceptional grammar and phonology, and I’m not convinced the culture is all that vibrant. For access to the Muslim word, I’d recommend Persian or Indonesian: two nice and easy languages with 100 million speakers or more each.

Anyway, even ‘only’ Chinese, German, Spanish and Russian may simply be too many. German would be the first to drop: it shares a fair amount of basic vocabulary with English and it has a case-based grammar like Russian. I do agree that it is a fine introduction to Dutch and Nordic, but then, the Dutch and Nordics have good English (as do many Germans).

These would be some of my thoughts, for what they’re worth. I hope your children will enjoy the learning experience – and if not, be spared the suffering.

Thanks again for your note,
all best,

Gaston

——–

Gaston,

I was very pleased to see your reply in my inbox this morning.  Thanks very much for your perspective, I value it greatly.

And please rest assured that I promise to avoid being an overbearing tiger dad with my kids.  My goal is to lead them to some very large and inviting pools of water, and hope they drink.  If they don’t, we’ll move on until we find other academic, athletic and/or artistic things they truly enjoy.

I have to admit though that I’m very encouraged with their language instruction so far.  It’s mostly singing, dancing and games (all in Mandarin), and while I walk away with absolutely nothing at the end of a session, they’re at ages where seemingly everything sticks immediately or with a minimum of repetition — and they’re incredibly eager to learn new words. It’s fascinating to watch. And for what it’s worth, they call their Chinese class “dance class”, which I find encouraging.

Russian and German may be challenging where I live (Hawaii) but Spanish should be easy.  Indonesian might be possible too.

Thanks again for taking the time to help out a hobbyist.  I’m looking forward to your next book.

J

——–

Chinese, Indonesian, Persian, Russian, English, German and Spanish, along with some others, will all feature in my next book, Babel, planned for 2018.

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