Lane Greene ~ Bringing Up Babel

Four-year-old Henry sometimes speaks English like a Dane. But Robert Lane Greene, his father, is convinced that there are cognitive benefits to raising bilingual children.

“Her is a bad guy!” This is a nerve-racking moment, not the first and not to be the last. My son Henry is describing the squid-witch Ursula, from Disney’s “Little Mermaid”, to his brother Jack. “She” is one of the most common words in the English language, but Henry has botched it and come up with “her”. He has just turned four. He should be able to use “she” properly at his age. Is his bilingual upbringing holding him back?

My wife is Danish; we met and married in New York. I sweated to learn Danish partly because she emigrated to be with me; I wanted to make the deal fair and be part of her world too. If you don’t speak a person’s native language, there’s always a corner of their mind you can’t quite reach. But everyone who has learned a language in adulthood knows how hard it is, with the grammar books and the flash cards, the pronunciation problems and the awkward rhythm, never quite getting to fluency. How much better to raise a genuine bilingual.

Plenty of parents have come to that conclusion. The new German-English state school near us in London is full to capa­city. The French-English bilingual programme in our old neighbourhood in Brooklyn is crammed to the rafters.

Parents normally use one of two strategies to make sure the minority language sticks: either “one parent, one language”, or “one language at home, the other outside”. Neither would work for us, as Jack is the offspring of a previous relationship, and speaks only English. But while my wife speaks English to Jack, she has stuck to speaking only Danish to Henry.

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