Britain’s multilingual children: ‘We speak whatever language

For many three-year-olds growing up in the UK, it’s challenging enough to learn and master one language, usually English. Yet there’s another rising demographic of young children who are acquiring and absorbing vocabulary from multiple languages before they even start primary school.

In 2021 there were around 6 million people with non-British nationality living in the UK, with 9.6m people born abroad – 35% of whom live in London. In the social sciences, this relatively new landscape of such diverse national origins is often referred to as “superdiversity” – a term coined by the German anthropologist Professor Steven Vertovec. The UK’s superdiversity is reflected in our school system, with around 20% of pupils speaking English as an additional language. In London schools, more than 300 different languages are spoken.

Bart, three, who lives in London, happily juggles Italian, Dutch and English in his household, with a smattering of Spanish too, thanks to his nursery carer. His dad, Riccardo Attanasio, is the son of Italian immigrants and his mum, Gwen Jansen, moved to the UK from the Netherlands 10 years ago. They are able to switch between different languages in a fluid, organic way. “We have busy, hectic lives,” says Attanasio. “When toys are being thrown around while you’re trying to cook dinner, or doing bedtime, you speak whatever language gets the job done.”

Before Bart was born, Attanasio says: “We didn’t have a plan as such, but we knew we wanted to raise him trilingual. When I was growing up, my dad insisted that my siblings and I learned Italian so we could communicate with our grandparents in Italy. Italian culture is a big part of me. I want Bart to have that, too.”

“Even if I speak to Bart only in Dutch, he’ll mostly reply in English, and we go with that,” says Jansen. “He understands me, but Ricc and I speak to each other in English and he’s picking up a lot at nursery.” At this point, Bart wakes up from his nap and theatrically swoons in the doorway, hair everywhere, asking for a biscuit. Attanasio cradles him while he comes to.

Jansen says that many of their shared, basic instructions for Bart – and their border terrier, Maurice – are in Dutch. “Bart likes the word stout, which means naughty or silly in Dutch, so we all use it,” she says. “He’ll definitely get directness from you,” Attanasio laughs. “His romantic and artistic side will be Italian. Plus his obsession with pasta.” Bart’s language acquisition is fascinating for his parents. “He has a Spanish carer at nursery and, the other night, I was doing numbers with him and he just carried on the sequence in Spanish,” says Attanasio. “It was very cute, but I also thought: it’s incredible what you can already do.”

For Bart and his family, the benefits of keeping language fluid and going with the flow is obvious. But the most widely known strategies for language learning in multilingual families have clear rules: the “one-language-one-parent” (OPOL) approach suggests each parent should only speak their first language to their children; the “minority-language-at-home” approach suggests parents speak only their heritage language at home, while the local language is learned at school.

However, with an appreciation of linguistic variation in superdiverse societies, many language experts advocate a new, more democratic approach to language learning: plurilingualism. In essence, the approach suggests that parents use different languages in ways that make sense to them, rather than follow a set of predetermined rules.

“Plurilingualism takes a dynamic view of language practices,” says Marina Antony-Newman, a doctoral student at the UCL Institute of Education who is developing the concept of plurilingual parenting. “There is an acceptance of partial proficiency in languages, with an emphasis on the use of languages in different contexts, rather than on the ‘ideal’ proficiency of a native speaker. The approach focuses more on the interconnectedness of language and culture in a fluid and complex system.” She explains that plurilingualism is less about the number of languages spoken than “the ways they are spoken”.

Antonio d’Amato, Bruno De Jongh and their twins.
‘Raising the girls in three languages is a big gift’: Antonio d’Amato, Bruno De Jongh and their twins. Photograph: Alex Lake/The Observer

Some families may instinctively use a more fluid approach to language. Ellie Arya met her husband, Siavash Arya, in 2004. He was studying for a civil engineering Masters at Manchester University and they were both working in an Iranian café. “I was a kitchen porter, chopping mushrooms and washing pots. Ellie offered to help me learn more English,” he says. “Hmm,” she replies. “There’s some debate about this. I think he asked me.”

He smiles, knowingly. “Yeah, maybe I said, ‘Me no speak English, I need help!’” Fast forward 18 years and the couple are living in Lincolnshire, raising their two children, Niloufar (12) and Saam (10) in Farsi and English. “It felt natural to bring them up bilingually,” she says. “It was important that Siavash maintained that part of his identity and that the children could embrace theirs, too.”

Although Niloufar and Saam’s father has always spoken Farsi with them, reading them Farsi books and playing Iranian music since they were babies, their mother has also learned enough to “get by”. Over the years, they all began to speak what they call “Finglish”. There are certain words that just sound better to them in Farsi. One is gooz: Farsi for fart. “We’ve shared that one far and wide with our friends,” she says. They both laugh. “It was quite funny when I learned the word gooseberry,” he says.

Certain beliefs around language-learning may create tension within families. For example, the idea that two or more languages spoken to a child might delay language development, or impact their academic ability, is particularly sticky. Researchers have spent decades quashing these myths, as well as proving that bilingual children have many cognitive advantages like improved executive function: the mental processes that enable us to focus attention, plan, remember and juggle multiple tasks.

There are many clear advantages to learning different languages, with cognitive benefits beginning in childhood and persisting throughout our lives. Long-term use of two or more languages can physically change the brain, with various studies showing that grey matter volume increases in regions responsible for learning and short-term memory retention. There are preventive benefits for brain health, too: in 2017, a University of Edinburgh study of 600 stroke victims found that 40.5% who were multilingual had normal mental functions afterwards, compared to 19.6% in those who only spoke one language. Speaking multiple languages can also reduce the risk of dementia and generally promote “healthy ageing”. And children can become more empathic because they learn to see things from different perspectives than their own.

On paper, all this evidence seems like a no-brainer for people learning additional languages, or native English-speaking parents encouraging foreign language-learning in the home. The problem is that certain myths around language-learning, particularly English, still linger for immigrant parents. Why?

“Historically, diversity was a problem that needed to be managed and theoretical science conflated language with social class,” says Dr Max Antony-Newman of Sheffield Hallam University. His research focuses on linguistic minorities, immigrant students and parental involvement. With fMRI scanners that can now look inside the brains of multilingual people, he says science has caught up: “We see that all these so-called ‘delays’ aren’t there, but it takes forever for that to translate into education. There is the media and political discourse around immigration to contend with, too.”

Anthony-Newman believes that the history of immigration in the West after World War Two explains why attitudes around language-learning within immigrant families move at a glacial speed. “Immigrants were stigmatised; seen as lower-class, taking up low-paid jobs,” he says. “In the US, for example, immigrants would mostly come from Europe. Teachers would say, ‘Don’t speak Italian at home. Your kids won’t assimilate properly. Or, they’ll speak with an accent and the wrong grammar, which won’t be good enough for work.’”

This notion rings true for Antonio d’Amato. His parents are Italian but he grew up bilingually in Germany. “This was definitely my mother’s rationale for not speaking Italian with us in the house, but her German is still very broken after 50 years in the country,” he says. D’Amato lives in Surrey with his Brazilian husband, Bruno De Jongh, where they are raising their 24-month-old twin girls in German, Portuguese and English. So far, OPOL is working brilliantly for them. D’Amato speaks only German with them, while De Jongh only speaks Portuguese. Their nanny speaks English.

“Raising the girls in three languages feels like a big gift we can give them,” says d’Amato. “For me, being a parent is all about nurturing someone, seeing them flourish and passing knowledge on. I always knew I wanted to do that with language, it was just about how to do it. So, I joined multilingual Facebook groups to research…” he catches De Jongh smiling. “Bruno laughs because I’m a member of so many groups. But I kept coming across OPOL, so that’s what we decided to do. It’s working really well. I’m blown away by how early they’re distinguishing which language to speak to who.”

It is important for d’Amato and De Jongh that their children can speak confidently with their respective families. “If they don’t speak Portuguese and go to Brazil when they’re a bit older, how do they communicate?” Asks De Jongh. “Also, most of Antonio’s family don’t speak English. I have learned some German to try to get by, but I want the girls to communicate well with them.” Although they are both “pretty consistent” in maintaining their own languages, there are moments of natural fluidity. “If the girls are having a tantrum, I will slip in some English words so other people can understand what’s going on when I’m talking to them,” says De Jongh.

Siavash and Ellie, and children Niloufar and Saam, who speak Farsi, English and ‘Finglish’.
‘It felt natural to bring them up bilingually’: Siavash and Ellie, and children Niloufar and Saam, who speak Farsi, English and ‘Finglish’. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Observer

The children are already using their languages to their advantage, too. “When they speak Portuguese to Bruno and don’t get what they want, they will turn around and say the same thing to me in German,” d’Amato laughs. “Ultimately, we really want to give them opportunity and awareness, because when you’re teaching language, you’re teaching culture. That’s what diversity is about, isn’t it?”

When people move between countries, they move with their culture. Parents raising their children in different languages keep parts of their own identity alive and give their children a tangible connection to their heritage. Multilingualism offers massive social and economic advantages to the UK, but this needs to be recognised outside family homes and within schools. Currently, our approach to language education does not reflect that 4.2 million people in the UK speak a language other than English at home. How languages are taught varies from school to school. For children of immigrant families learning English, many language experts argue that a plurilingual approach in primary schools – one that embraces diversity and encourages awareness of heritage languages – not only improves psychological wellbeing, but helps them learn English faster.

“We need to believe that systemically embracing diversity is important,” says Dr Wing Yin Chow, a developmental psychologist based at University College London. “When immigrant children come to the UK and join a class, they can experience emotional challenges when they don’t know English.” Chow has visited many schools to see what best motivates pupils to learn English. She mentions the Kensington Primary School in East Ham, east London, where more than 90% of pupils are learning English as a second language.

The school uses a plurilingual approach. “It is hard to teach such a diverse group of pupils, but they are doing it brilliantly,” she says. “The teachers cultivate an acceptance of different languages and cultures. For example, all children are invited to write compositions in their first language and share them with their classmates. They also have after-school language clubs, where parents teach different languages to the children, and the mixing of groups there is surprising.” The approach makes a huge difference. “The teachers showed us some work and, after just one year, new pupils were able to write in English. It is amazing to see.”

In contrast, Professor Xiao Lan Curdt-Christiansen, who is currently working at Bath University and has been researching children’s multilingual education for many years, says that children speaking their heritage languages is not encouraged in most schools. “Our interview data shows that some teachers directly ask children not to speak heritage language with other children on school grounds, even during lunch hours. The reason given by teachers, according to some parents, is, “Because it is [English] school, you can’t speak Chinese as other children don’t understand you.”

At face-value, this shows consideration for other children. The deeper reality is murkier. “It is a long-lasting racial exclusion issue. It is obvious that languages other than English are not valued,” says Curdt-Christiansen.

With all the cognitive advantages of speaking different languages, encouraging language diversity could mean that future generations have healthier brains and greater professional opportunities. But at the heart of all this, we are also talking about something more fundamental: human beings being able to express themselves; to be seen and heard.

When I meet Siavash Arya, the importance of his children being able to understand and speak Farsi is palpable. “For me, it’s about love. I just wouldn’t be able to fully give them, or express, my love otherwise.” He starts to cry. “You don’t always feel like you can be 100% yourself in English, do you?” his wife says, rubbing his shoulders. “It’s sometimes like you’re putting on a different hat.”

This intimate moment speaks to a broader truth: if we cultivate a system where language diversity is celebrated, people can be more fully themselves. In global Britain, surely this is something to strive for.

Some names have been changed