Learning My Spouse’s Language through My Children

I am a native speaker of American English married to a native speaker of Greek, raising two Swiss-born children in Scotland–we are a multinational, multilingual family!

Because we met almost two decades ago on American soil, my now-husband and I have always spoken English to each other. Visiting Greece frequently and listening to him speak Greek with friends and on the phone regularly gave me a good grasp of pronunciation and some basic phrases to use. So, for example, I could flawlessly order an iced espresso with no milk and no sugar at a café in Athens, or tell my mother-in-law that her lamb was delicious, or defend myself from relentless offers for second or third portions by my father-in-law at the dinner table.

Over the years, I did attend a few Modern Greek courses at whichever university I was currently attending, but I did not particularly enjoy classroom learning for this language. Nor did we attempt to speak Greek at home on a daily basis, as the path of least [conversational] resistance language was English. Perhaps I also took it for granted that Greek would always be there, when I was ready to fully embrace it. [Read more…]

Growing up bilingual: quality of exposure, not just quantity, matters!

The amount of time that children spend listening to each of their languages, be it their parents’ two languages in bilingual families, or the family and the community language, has a huge influence on how quickly they develop their language skills. So, quantity matters!

Does quality matter, too? This is less clear. Partly this is because less research has been conducted on this topic, and partly because of the huge range of experiences that children face when growing up bilingual. Quantity is easy to define and measure. By contrast, measuring quality is hard: there are many different factors that could make the language experience of one bilingual child qualitatively different from the language experience of another. [Read more…]

What quieres you decir? Bilingual children are better at understanding communicative intentions.

There can often be a gap between what someone says (their utterance), and what they mean (their communicative intention). For example, there is a subtle but very important difference between the remark “it is cold here”, uttered by a Spanish tourist on arriving in Edinburgh for the Festival, and the implicit request “it is cold here”, uttered by your office mate on entering the office, noticing the window is open, and politely suggesting you should close it.

Understanding intentions is critical to communicative success, and adult speakers can (usually!) make the required inference that they ought to shut the window in order to keep the peace. However, this ability takes some time to acquire – very small children are not able to draw this kind of inference. [Read more…]

Bilingual children with different languages and cultures perform better than monolinguals at executive control tasks


One of the cognitive domains that have been studied for bilingual advantages is ‘Executive Control’. Generally speaking, this function refers to a set of processes that have to do, for instance, with attending to one stimulus while suppressing another one. Because bilinguals use similar processes when they have to switch between the languages they speak, it has been thought that they may perform somehow more efficiently at tasks requiring such abilities, even in tasks that do not have to do with language. This study looked at the possible advantage on Executive Control in bilingual children with different language and culture backgrounds: bilingual children in Canada and bilingual children in India. Performance on different Executive Control tasks of these two groups was compared to a monolingual group of Canadian children. The authors showed that both bilingual groups performed similarly to each other and moreover, they were better than the monolingual group in tasks involving Executive Control abilities. These findings show that the specific bilingual advantages looked at in this study occur irrespective of a child’s language and cultural background.  Read full article here or here.