Being bilingual

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Before I write anything, I would like to point out that, as far as I am concerned, I am not bilingual. Many people tell me I am, but I have always understood true bilingualism to mean growing up with two languages in your brain, right from the outset, and learning to switch from one to the other with bits of your learning experience in one language and bits in the other.

For someone like me, this is not the case. OK, so I have been living a bilingual existence since July 29th 1991, when I moved to France for good, but I had already lived 25 years of my life in an essentially monolingual world. I actually started learning French at the age of 10 with Mrs Farmer in primary school, or Fat Betty, as my brother and his mates so cruelly used to call her (accompanied by all the necessary “bam-ba-lams”, for those who remember the song ?).

Being bilingual, to my mind, means growing up learning the two languages in parallel right from the outset. This is what my kids have done and I am delighted to have been able to watch the process working right before my very eyes, as it is truly fascinating. As a teacher, I always make a point of discovering what the linguistic map is for each of my pupils as it truly does make a difference, in my view. A student of mine this year, IH, speaking a non-French language (and non-English) at home, has such beautiful pronunciation skills that there has to be a connection.

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A bilingual brain is wired differently. I have always believed this to be true and while confusions exist, the connections are not better, not worse, just different.

Some examples from my own kids :

Attends pour moi

Je veux jouer avec mon bleu tracteur

Maman, pipi, too late !

I also find kids who are bilingual are a true challenge in the classroom. Of course, I am now referring to bilingual English-French in my context of teaching English within a French lycée. Over the twenty years I have been there (almost), I have had quite a collection of bilinguals, including having the joy of teaching my own kids. In fact, this year is one of the first years without any bilingual students in my memory. Teaching bilingual kids English is great. You have to really work on strategies to get them engaged, as their needs are so different. One major area needing attention is often spelling. One boy, Tom, used to do as much dictation via a computer as possible, just to get him working on the quality of his spelling in English. Another pupil, T, needed to learn to use a dictionary as she just used to write it as she thought it, but with the confused language rules she had in her head, her spelling was pretty dodgy in both English and French – but do not fear, she is currently working her way through Med School and not suffering undue confusion !!!

One student, M, needed to learn to use a Thesaurus as he was unable to vary his vocabulary. Purely through laziness, everything was either “good” or “bad” and introducing him to Mr Roget and his Thesaurus enabled him to learn to use different words and expressions to enrich the linguistic quality of his work.

Some reading and research on bilingualism (not by me !!)

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-benefits-of-bilingualism.html?_r=0

http://brainconnection.positscience.com/the-cognitive-advantages-of-balanced-bilingualism/

http://www.reading.ac.uk/celm/Resources/clm-bilingualism-matters.aspx

http://www.trlanguages.com/Learning.aspx

http://leap.tki.org.nz/Is-bilingualism-a-problem

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I have a  question that intrigues me – my eldest son is a musician and I am curious to know whether his bilingualism has anything to do with his musical ability. I am currently trying to research the question on-line but so far, the answers I achieve take the question the other way round : why are bilingual artists good at music ? But my question is slightly different – does the fact of being bilingual help you to become a better musician ?

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