What are the benefits of learning a language and multilingualism? In this interview, Francesca from Mother Tongues tells us more about the wonderful world of languages.
B: Hi Francesca, tell us a bit about yourself. Where were you born and what kind of culture did you grow up with?
F: I was born in Lanciano on the East coast of Italy. I lived in Italy until I was 22 and when I finished university there I moved to Dublin.
B: So you then moved to Dublin and had to adjust to another culture but your cultural background….
F: Yes, but I’m from Italy and everyone in my family is Italian.
When I was a teenager, I used to come here [to Ireland] for a few weeks every summer. I was 14 and took part in a programme called Interculture. It was a study program. We went to Donegal and we had a host family and a group of friends that would take us out in the afternoon so that we could get to know the culture better, to integrate and to actually use English with native speakers in Donegal. So that’s where I learnt English in the first place. Or learnt to communicate in English. And then when I moved, I already knew the country because I’d been here pretty much five or six times.
B: So you were familiar with everything?
F: Yes, I was familiar with Ireland and with the culture.
B: So you learnt English before you came to Dublin. You’re fluent in Italian, English…
F: And I studied other languages at university. I studied Spanish at university and I learned Irish for one year and German. And now I am learning Irish sign language, as well. Yes, I am definitely into languages. I’m a linguist.
B: Actually, we are quite interested in the topic of multilingualism and we would like to ask you a couple of questions about that.
Why do you think it is important to be multilingual? Nowadays, everyone speaks English and many people don’t bother with learning languages. Why do you think it’s still important to learn languages?
F: There are two sides of this: It is important to learn foreign languages because it is a great mental exercise. It’s good for our brain. It’s good for young people but also for elderly people. In fact, there is quite a lot of new research regarding this and there are some programs that teach elderly people languages because it is believed to be an exercise that can help the ageing brain. You also understand more about your own language when you study a foreign language, and you get to communicate with more people and understand other cultures. It also opens your world to new perspectives on the world. Not everything in the world revolves around English and not everything is English-based. There are many other languages and it is important to learn about those because sometimes the language is the access to another culture and a number of people, a cultural group that you can learn more about. If you stay in your own “world” and stick to your own language, you miss out on these opportunities.
B: You mentioned it was good for elderly people to learn languages. What about children?
F: With regard to raising bilingual children, we know that bilinguals – and this applies to both bilingual adults, bilingual children – people who learn a language in later life – have clear cognitive advantages. Their brain and their mental activity benefit from juggling two languages. Bilinguals are more flexible, learn other languages faster than monolinguals,…[thinking] oh, there are a lot of advantages! From a cognitive point of view, bilinguals are better at focusing and paying attention. So it [bilingualism] has positive outcomes for all.
B: I would like to get back to the aspect of raising bilingual children. Do you think it could have a harmful effect to teach children too many languages, that it even could confuse them?
F: That’s a good question. Absolutely not. This is what I keep telling people every week and this is the whole purpose of Mother Tongues. Bilingualism is not harmful. Whether you are an adult or a child. It’s actually only beneficial for children. There is no limit to how many languages a child can handle.
B: Really? You can expose them to three or more?
F: Yes, three, four, five… there are a lot of countries where children hear three different national languages and then they are also exposed to a couple of dialects that their grandparents speak or somebody from the other neighbourhood speaks and they acquire all of these languages very easily. There is no harm in raising bilingual or multilingual children.
B: That’s good to know. What do you think could be done more to promote multilingualism? What can be done to show people that it’s not harmful in any way?
F: Well, it’s important to inform families and to let parent know that it’s okay to raise your children bilingually. It’s not always that easy to juggle two or three languages at home. But sometimes parents need to be pushed a little bit to make this effort and that’s why they need to know it’s beneficial. So we need to inform parents, but also people that parents rely on, for example teachers and public health nurses who help mothers after birth. Or Speech and language therapists. Anybody who surrounds the family and who gives them advice. Anyone who parents trust should be able to give them accurate information and encourage them to raise bilingual children.
B: Okay, so it’s all about raising awareness.
F: Yes, and I wish multilingualism were more present in the media. And that it would play a bigger role in the training of people who help and advise families. I would like to see specialists trained to work with multilingualism because this is not quite happening yet.
B: Okay, so now let’s find out more about Mother Tongues. Why did you decide to start Mother Tongues?
F: Firstly, to raise awareness. I think there is more need to fully understand what bilingualism is and what the benefits are so that people can embrace it.
I set up something similar called Bilingual Forum Ireland about nine years ago. It was slightly different but the aim was the same. And then I moved to England in 2010 and worked with Bilingualism Matters. And when I moved back in 2014 I realised there was still a need for an organisation like this. Not only in Dublin. Mother Tongues is not only Dublin – based. We will go to any school, any community all over the country because we know this information needs to be spread all over the country. I mean, we have a very multicultural community here in Dublin, but particularly the communities in other parts of Ireland might feel more isolated than those in Dublin. Here, you hear other people speaking other languages, parents speaking to their children in their language on the streets. So, you feel like it’s okay because other people are doing it but if you are the only one who is multilingual and it’s a small village, you might feel that there is something wrong or that your child might feel different because you speak a different language. Thus, you might not support multilingualism because the external network might not support you. We want to reach out to everyone.
B: This is also your main motivation and objective?
F: Yes, but we also want to inform policy makers and to give them up to date research information so that they can make decisions that will affect the whole country.
B: And what exactly do you do?
F: We give talks, workshops, and work with communities. And even companies can contact us. We give workshops in other languages, too. Just last week we had one in Polish, in Newbridge. We are able to offer services in several languages.
B: So, it’s not just general skills.
F: Yes, we don’t teach any languages. We focus on giving advice. Talks, lectures…in large companies with multicultural workforces. Some are organised by us and sometimes we are invited to events and collaborate with others. We give one – to – to one consultation, too. We also have a podcast where we talk about a different topics each month and answer questions.
B: And how exactly are you planning to help people?
F: We are planning to write pamphlets and small publications so that we can reach out to people who can’t come to our talks. Information flyers and booklets in several languages. We would like put these into maternity packs or hospitals so that parents will get advice from day one. That they will know it’s okay to raise your child bilingual and to pass on some of your culture and heritage and reap the benefits from the very start.
B: What kind of experience and training does the staff of Mother Tongues have? Where do you get your knowledge from?
F: I have a PhD in child bilingualism from Dublin City University. I am a lecturer in clinical speech and language studies in Trinity College and I’ve been researching child bilingualism for the past ten years and. While I was working as a researcher I realised that people wanted to know about the research but also needed practical advice. For example, how to deal with children who are struggling with English in the classroom? Speech language therapists asked “Should we tell the parents to stick to their own language or not?” While I was working as a linguist, as a professor, people came to me and asked me “What should I do?”
B: So even professionals didn’t know what to do.
[Francesca also introduces the rest of the team. More information can be found on their website]
F: We are all academically trained but we also have a lot of experience in working with families.
B: How do people get in touch with you?
F: We have a website mothertongues.ie and a facebook page where we share articles that we think are reliable sources. And we are present on Twitter.
B: What projects are currently going on?
F: Currently, we are applying for funding, planning our official launch, and our next public talk “Bilingualism – an investment for life” at the DLR LexIcon Library on 13th May 2017.
B: Cool, thanks so much for your time, Francesca!