Growing Up Multilingual

Post by Miranda Garralda Wong

It’s becoming increasingly common nowadays that children from primary and secondary schools are engaging with and learning to use more than one language. Across the world, policies have been shaped so to encourage the next generation to think outside of the box and  be open to the possibilities of a different linguistic universe, and to therefore be conscious from an early age, of the cross-cultural other.

Whilst volunteering with Bilingualism Matters, I began to understand why. Bilingualism, or multilingualism, is not only cognitively beneficial because of the increased awareness of other linguistic worlds. In fact, research has shown that children who are able to speak more than one language tend to possess advantageous attention-switching skills and be strong communicators, due to their abilities to intuitively shift from one language to another. Bilinguals are also capable of observing other more subtle methods of communication which exist in all languages. For instance, the non-language specific method of reading body language and interpreting a person’s emotions and feelings. It is not to say that monolingual children are at any disadvantage, in fact, as I will expand on my personal experience as a trilingual, being multilingual can be difficult for many reasons. But to be given the abilities and means to become a bilingual should be a choice available to all children, because its benefits are truly life-changing, and understandably useful in the globalised world we live in today.

I myself grew up in a multilingual home. My Mother is Chinese, and she spoke to me in Cantonese. My Father is Spanish, so he spoke to me primarily in Spanish. And I went to an English-speaking international school. Being based in Hong Kong, my school encouraged me to pick up Mandarin too. So all in all, I was writing, reading, speaking and listening to this colourful spectrum of languages, though without ever realising what the term ‘multilingual’ meant, or the fact that I was multilingual.

I’d be walking home with my Father on the streets after school where he could be talking to me in Spanish, but eavesdropping constantly into the conversations of two Cantonese-speaking school girls next to us, then bumping into my English teacher, to whom I address and converse with briefly about our final assignment deadline.

Sometimes, as many other multilinguals experience, the eavesdropping becomes difficult to control. Without consciously realising, I could be focusing too much into the thoughts of others, and forget where I’m going or failing to recall what I was thinking about beforehand. Then, there’s the confused reaction I got sometimes, for sounding perfectly local when speaking Cantonese, and then being pointed out for looking different from native speakers.

It’s not so surprising that I started questioning my identity from the age of 10, or that I struggled to fit in one singular national identity or stereotypical framework. Growing up multilingual had its disadvantages – it was hard to decide who I was, let alone where I wanted to go after high school. Needless to say, for a few years, I became quite introverted. I say now that those years were really important for me to discover where my boundaries were, and observe closely when and where I could say or do certain things that were acceptable in one culture, but not in another.

There was also a phase in teenage-hood when I desperately tried to fit into the group identity of my Cantonese-speaking side. Whether it be with family, friends or strangers, I remember wanting to be liked, and somehow found myself submitting to a more demure, naïve caricature, to maximise their acceptance of my differences.  Only until university did I realise what I had been doing – the saying that language could shape your identity was certainly true, and I felt at that point that for each language I spoke, I had a different identity. Perhaps in some alternate universe I could have become a great actress. But maybe having 4 different roles is enough for now.

As a 21 year old, I can say multilingualism is more than an academic trait. Learning a language requires a kind of determination that can only truly be achieved when you identify with the culture that created it.

If anything, I share my experience to connect with others who feel similarly, and to show others what it meant to me to realise that I was growing up to be multilingual. My experience may be different from others who learn an additional language without being ethnically tied to its culture, but whether a language is learned academically or inevitably due to a child’s multi-cultural upbringing, there is one fact which remains consistently true: The greatest gift of being multilingual is the psychological maturity and personal growth that comes with it. There are moments in life when I realise one thing after another, and it adds up to shape who I am and who I will be as an adult. The realisation that there is a wider world to discover exploded like confetti in my mind and allowed me to see the world through a different lens.