Look who’s talking

In this age of global nomads, Karen Iley discovers there has never been a better opportunity for expat kids to learn a second language

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Thanks to more and more parents working abroad, kids are finding themselves in a new environment where a second language is essential for survival, or, at least, key to making life a whole lot easier.

As a parent who has tried – and failed – to master any language other than English, I want to spare my tots the monotony and frustration that comes with verb tables and vocabulary tests. If that’s the case, experts say I should start now. Young kids are like little sponges, learning at an alarming rate and soaking up all sorts of valuable information (including some details you’d rather they ignore). ‘Being raised with one or more languages is a gift for life,’ says Silke Rehman, founder of the Multilingual Network in Dubai. ‘It means access to another culture, heightened self-esteem, increased career options and more flexible and divergent thinking.’

Contrary to popular myth, growing up learning two, three or even more languages is not confusing to kids. Nor does it slow down speech and development or hold them back at school, as long as mums and dads provide the right support and make sure their kids are exposed to the language in a consistent and structured way. ‘Kids can grow up with several languages without any issue,’ says Rehman. ‘The brain is capable of learning lots of languages. The limit is only the capability and energy of the parents.’

Of course, the earlier you start, the better. Teach a child a foreign language from the day they’re born and they’ll be able to remember and differentiate sounds they hear during the first months of life. ‘If a baby hears Chinese on a regular basis, he’ll be able to distinguish between sounds that, to us adults, would all sound the same,’ she says. But, she warns, if those sounds are not repeated regularly, the brain, in its efficiency, ditches them in favour of new knowledge.

But don’t panic. It’s never too late for an older child to pick up a new lingo. In fact, you’ll be amazed at how quickly they can learn, provided you decide on a clear strategy and stick to it. Many kids over here are fortunate enough to have mum speaking one language and dad another, but even this ‘one person, one language’ method requires parental commitment.


Seven-year-old twins Nicole and Katlyn Ursprunger speak excellent German thanks to their Austrian dad, but English is definitely their first language. To keep the German levels up, mum Diane signed them up for lessons at the Eton Institute, which offers fun courses in six languages for kids aged four to seven years. ‘Dad’s at work or away travelling so they don’t get to speak German in the same way as they do English, but we want to instill this language in them because we visit Austria often, we have family there and we want the girls to be able to communicate with their grandparents and cousins,’ she says.

Seven-year-old Julie Hildebrandt, who also has a German-speaking father, appreciated being able to ask questions at her own pace, particularly those relating to grammar and writing skills. ‘Sometimes my dad talks quickly and I can’t understand what he’s saying, but I think these lessons help,’ she says.

Even if you aren’t from a multi-lingual background, there’s nothing to stop your child learning at an early age. At The Children’s Garden nursery, kids aged three years and above divide their time equally between English and either French or German. With two home rooms – one for English, one for French or German – the children switch between languages, knowing, for example, that in the French room all their books, posters and the teacher’s chat will be in French and vice versa. ‘In this way they can be truly bilingual because they’re in an environment that supports language learning in multiple ways – through music, books, toys, art and, of course, talking,’ explains TCG communications officer Zee Gilmore.

Dubai, home to people from all over the world, is a perfect place for kids to learn how to celebrate different cultures. Not only will this hopefully create more tolerant and compassionate global citizens in the future, but it’s also a lot of fun. ‘Culture is language and language is culture,’ says Gilmore, pointing out Chinese lanterns and Kenyan masks adorning the nursery walls. ‘In order to understand culture, you have to understand the language, and if you have an insight into the language it opens doors, answers questions – you “get it” more.’

But is this not a bit overwhelming for most three-year-olds? Not at all, says Gilmore. ‘When you’re young, you’re playing. Imaginative play is so important because you learn best when you’re emotionally engaged, when you’re happy and doing fun stuff. If the teachers are talking to you and helping you have fun, if they’re making you feel important and understood and a valuable part of the class, it doesn’t matter what language they’re speaking in, you can’t help but learn.’
For details of language courses for kids, contact the Eton Institute at Knowledge Village on 04 360 2955/6 or www.eton.ac. Check out The Children’s Garden by calling 04 885 3484 or visit www.childrensgarden.ae. For more information and future workshops on bringing up bilingual kids, visit www.themlnetwork.com where you can also buy Silke Rehman’s ebook ‘Make your child multilingual!’

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