By Livia Dewaele
Being trilingual from birth definitely has advantages, I thought, as I received my results (A*) for my French IGCSE, sat two years early. My entire class at Palmers Green High School (London) is in agreement – they have all at one point told me and the other native French speaker in the class that they wished their parents had spoken French to them as a young child (French being the compulsory language at GCSE). I agree with them, of course. I’m not the only multilingual, four other girls combine English with Chinese, Turkish, Gujurati and Spanish.
Multilingualism is not just handy at school. Travelling last week on the Eurostar, my dad, who is a diabetic, had a hypoglycemia (a blood sugar low), and fell into a coma as we were going through security at the Bruxelles midi terminal. Since it was just the two of us travelling together, I was the one who had to explain first to the Eurostar staff, then to the paramedics, and finally to the hospital staff what had happened. The thought struck me while there how lucky I was to be able to communicate with them properly, in French and Flemish. Obviously there is very little chance of this happening to anyone else, but in an emergency it is always a huge advantage to be able to communicate fluently, no matter where one is.
When asked if my multilingualism does not somehow have a negative effect on me, I answer (forgive me for lack of modesty) that I have consistently achieved top grades in both French and English at school, attaining the highest mark in the year in my English GCSE exam last year. Psychologically, of course, some might argue that speaking three languages is affecting my mental balance and I may someday become a psychopathic killer. Not to worry, I have always been happy, and it seems to me, at least, that I don’t have any mental problems, or any issues in fact. If I did, I highly doubt they would spring from my multilingualism.
It frequently amazes people that I speak three languages, but to me it is not special, definitely not an achievement. If anything, it is my parents’ achievement, for making sure I always spoke in French/Dutch to them, and stuck to the one parent/one language rule. If not properly enforced, I would have lost the ability to speak either or both of the two, especially as I became most proficient in English. This is the case in my two younger cousins who live in Brussels – they have lost their confidence in French, due to overwhelmingly hearing Flemish at school, at after school activities and from their mother. It seems a shame.
I have my end of course Spanish exams in three weeks, and I’m studying hard. A fourth language, yes, but it does not feel like that. This is the first time I have actually had to make an effort to learn a language, and I’ve come to appreciate the difficulty of learning a language later in life. That said, I definitely have an advantage in that Spanish is similar to French, making it very easy to understand what is written and said – or it would be if they didn’t all speak so fast!
So I encourage all parents to speak their native language to their child, and if it’s not English, even better!
To learn more about Livia’s trilingualism and her multilingual father, Prof. Jean-Marc Dewaele, check out the following posts: