“There is often this idea that you need to speak more English, but you’re getting all these positive side effects of speaking Greek” – Professor John Hajek.
Gone are the days where speaking in your mother tongue was frowned upon in Australia.
Now, more than ever, we’re seeing a bilingual upheaval, with parents keeping a bilingual household to better prepare their children for the world.
The benefits are staggering. You can thank your parents for a 4-year-delay in the onset of dementia, better problem solving skills and a more open view of the world.
It’s effectively a “linguistic brain gym”, says Professor John Hajek, director of the Research Unit for Multilingualism and Cross-Cultural Communication (RUMACC) at Melbourne University.
“We know that it works different parts of the brain and we know that the benefits of being an active bilingual last through your whole lifetime,” he tells Neos Kosmos.
Children growing up bilingual have been found to do better in English, literacy and numeracy, debunking a common myth that children end up starting school with lower English skills than their peers thanks to their brains battling the two languages.
“One thing is we forget how much English is spoken in Australia, there’s lots and lots of English everywhere we look, even as a baby, children learn very quickly that English is the language of power and it’s all around them, from television, to radio, when their parents speak to other people,” Professor Hajek says.
“There is often this idea that you need to speak more English, but you’re getting all these positive side effects of speaking Greek.”
Many children growing up in the last few decades would have seen their parents quite desperate to learn English and shed their ‘foreign’ label.
Keeping your language was actively discouraged and many felt they had to become an English speaking Australian as soon as possible.
Now this fluency in two or more languages is a sought after commodity, and more and more parents are enrolling their kids multilingual playgroups and in schools that offer multilingual programs.
Studies show the earlier a child is immersed in a bilingual or multilingual environment the better.
“Children are sponges, they learn without criticising, they’re very cluey, they know what’s going on, even if they can’t describe it,” Professor Hajek explains.
The mental workout young brains get when juggling two languages is a blessing. Just like any muscle in the body, the brain must be exercised to ensure it stays healthy, and the workout the brain gets when faced with choosing from two languages is the best thing to keep it strong.
A factor with dementia is shrinking brain, and by speaking more than one language, people are effectively maintaining their brain mass, and therefore delay the onset of the debilitating disease.
“The benefits to us are huge,” says Professor Hajek.
“Can you imagine if we’re all active bilinguals? The savings to the health budget.”
That is why it’s so important to get the myths out of our community and start implementing ways to help our children keep both languages.
For the benefits to last, a person has to keep up with their less dominant language. For Greeks Australians, it’s imperative to keep using Greek, and that’s where the extended family can help.
An untapped resource is the family’s grandparents. Sometimes a yiayia or a papou might use their grandchildren to help them better learn English and might resist the urge to speak to them in Greek.
Professor Hajek says that is a huge loss of potential.
“It’s really important that the grandparents be consistent, the grandparents should not use their children to improve their English,” he says
“People have to commit.”
As well as the family help, more resources should be made available to children whist going through school.
Sadly the education system in Australia still has a long way to go to properly cater to bilingual kids.
It means more subjects, other than the obligatory language subject need to be taught in another language. It’s something our European, Asian, American and African counterparts have mastered for years, and we can learn from their example.
Professor Hajek and Dr Susanne Döpke will be giving a special free seminar on Raising children in more than one language on December 1.
As part of The Research Unit for Multilingualism and Cross-Cultural Communication (RUMACCC) of the School of Languages and Linguistics at The University of Melbourne, the in-depth seminar will feature three sessions over four hours all designed to tackle the issues of bilingualism in Australia head on.
Session one includes lectures by Dr Döpke on “Issues in raising children bilingually” and by Professor Hajek on “Early childhood literacy and language in school”.
Session two gives parents tips on how to best raise a child bilingually, and Dr Averil Grieve will run through the issues of “language choice in a bilingual setting”.
The last session will address one of the most pertinent issues, the “right to more than one language: challenging Australia’s monolingual mindset”.
Those interested in taking part in the free seminar must register their attendance online, http://rumaccc.unimelb.edu.au/event/raising-children-more-one-language