Multilingualism in young children is good thing: ‘Languages don’t bite’

During Leiden City of Science 2022, Janet Grijzenhout and Hannah De Mulder put multilingualism in the spotlight by organising multilingual storytelling afternoons. They hope to show parents that raising children in a multilingual environment is achievable and beneficial.

Although Janet Grijzenhout and Hannah De Mulder have different fields of research as a phonologist and psycholinguist respectively, they have a shared interest in multilingualism, especially in children. The idea for the project A Story in Another Language flowed from this shared interest. ‘Learning to read and write is one thing, but listening and acquiring a wide range of languages from different speakers is also important,’ explains Grijzenhout. ‘Besides, children like to be read to, so it is a good way for them to interact with language.’

De Mulder agrees with her: ‘Research shows that the range of language in children’s books is much richer than what you hear in everyday conversation. Moreover, reading aloud is very beneficial for social development.’ Thus, the project can be summarised in one sentence. ‘Storytelling is fun, languages are fun and multilingualism is fun!’ sums up De Mulder.

Leiden as a linguistically diverse city

Multilingualism is more common than you might initially think. Leiden can also be considered a very linguistically diverse city. ‘People usually think this about Amsterdam and The Hague, but it also applies to Leiden,’ says Grijzenhout.

Children’s book translated (S tmaziɣt & English) by Khalid Mourigh and Ronald Leunissen

More attention to languages spoken at home

But De Mulder can confirm that the outside world is not always so positive about multilingualism. ‘I was raised multilingual English-Dutch, which has actually always had a positive reputation in the outside world. But there are also languages that are not seen in such a positive light. In the time I worked at elementary schools in Rotterdam I learned that the use of other languages is not always encouraged. For example, during a vacation in Turkey I had learned a few words of Turkish. When I used them to greet a young Turkish-speaking girl, she reacted very shocked and said she was not allowed to use Turkish at school. The school probably did not mean it like that, but this way they send out the message that her home language has no place at school. With our project we want to prove that languages other than Dutch are valuable as well and that it does a child a great injustice when these languages are excluded.’

The researchers really wanted to put languages in the spotlight that do not usually receive much attention. A total of seven languages were selected that were divided over four events. ‘Of course, we cannot cover all the languages spoken in Leiden. For example, we chose to focus on Moroccan Arabic and Tamazight in the first event,’ says Grijzenhout.

Tamazight (also known as Berber) is a separate language spoken in the Rif where most Moroccans living in the Netherlands come from. ‘This language now has a written form, but for a long time Tamazight was only a spoken language. As a result, it was often considered not an official language, even though it has a very rich oral tradition. Khalid Mourigh, one of our team members, has written down stories from this culture and published them so that there are now storytelling books for parents in this language as well.’

More storytelling events

In June, the second event with the languages Spanish, Portuguese and Papiamento will take place. ‘These are Romance languages that are closely related to each other,’ says Grijzenhout. De Mulder adds: ‘Spanish and Portuguese are relatively large language groups and speakers of these languages could – if they take the time to get used to each other’s language – understand one another quite

well, even when speaking their own language. Papiamento was chosen because it is a language that is strongly influenced by Spanish as well as Portuguese. The team members involved in this event are Maria del Carmen Parafita Couto, Eduardo Alves Vieira, Susana Valdez, Ivo Boers, Nihayra Leona and Reden Valencia Libo-on.’

The third event, in September, will focus on Filipino and English. ‘The selection of languages is partly pragmatic, based on people in our networks (our team members Reden Valencia Libo-on and Alice Ross Morta are Filipino). But we also wanted to strike a balance between the larger language communities and the smaller ones, and one such smaller language community is Filipino,’ explains Grijzenhout.

To top it off, a closing event will be organised during the Children’s Book Week in October. ‘We will then present the stories from all languages in various forms. Together with the latest insights on multilingualism from the research,’ says Grijzenhout. ‘We are very much looking forward to that as well!

Multilingualism in the spotlight

For Grijzenhout and De Mulder the project will be considered a success as soon as the use of different languages gains more attention. ‘Suppose there is one family that decides to speak their language spoken at home besides Dutch, that would be wonderful. It would be great if we can make it clear to them that, if you want to raise children in a multilingual environment, that is completely okay, even if the other language is a small minority language. And that reading aloud can play a significant role in this,’ says De Mulder.

‘Multilingualism is easy to maintain in toddlerhood, but becomes more and more difficult to maintain during primary school, because the child is exposed to Dutch a lot more,’ adds Grijzenhout. ‘We hope to motivate people to persist during that period and to keep speaking the language spoken at home. The child will appreciate this and benefit from it later on.’

Three reading sessions have been organised in cooperation with BplusC. At each of these meetings a story is read aloud and discussed.

  • Moroccan Arabic / Tamazight (23 March)
  • Spanish / Portuguese / Papiamento (25 June, subject to change)
  • Filipino / English (17 September, subject to change)

There will be a closing event during the Children’s Book Week (5-16 October). Click here

/Public Release. This material from the originating organization/author(s) may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s).View in full here.