The benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism in expat kids

For many expat families, learning a new language is part of the emigration package. Some expat children may already speak additional languages as the result of having parents from different home countries, while in other cases the whole family may be monolingual, and language learning becomes a group activity.

A recent interview series with so-called Third Culture Kids, conducted by Aetna International, sought to find out whether what we think we know about globally mobile, multicultural kids is true.

One of the topics that often comes up in discussion of expat and Third Culture Kids is the idea that they are all innately bilingual – but this isn’t necessarily the case. Some expat children grow up surrounded by other expats, and while a number of interviewees in the Aetna International study spoke up to four languages, many said that they only understood their native tongue.

It almost goes without saying that there are all manner of reasons why learning to communicate in other languages is beneficial to expat children. In many ways, the stresses and challenges of a new life abroad can be eased and improved not just by bilingualism itself, but in the process of learning the language too.

Cultural Education

Language and culture are deeply intertwined. The different patterns of speech and terminologies across languages are rooted in cultural history, and learning to understand these differences means learning to understand the culture they come from.

As an example, when learning Chinese languages children can be taught about the reasons that relatives on their mother’s and father’s sides are referred to using different names, for example “wàigōng” and “yéyé” each meaning ‘grandfather’ in Mandarin. This nuance comes from the historical importance of social status in China, and opens the door to education on the other differences between eastern and western cultures.

There are words and phrases that only exist in their original language, such as the Japanese ‘wabi-sabi’ or Danish ‘hyggelig’ – now popularly referred to as hygge. For children moving to or living in another country, becoming familiar with these things helps to make the culture attached to them feel more familiar too.

Learning folk songs and pop songs in a new language is a great way to familiarise the whole family, along with exploring different local food types and games. Becoming bilingual or multilingual ceases to be just about learning words and sentence structures, and becomes an exercise in multiculturalism.

Adaptability to Change

Globe-hopping with children can be difficult, whether they’re toddlers or teenagers. For a monolingual child it can be particularly daunting to arrive in a new country where they don’t understand what people are saying, and can’t read things like packaging or signs.

Settling your family into a new culture and country will always come with its own trials and tribulations, but if you can help your child learn the local language then you help them not only to adapt to their new home but also to become adaptable to other changes too.

Aetna International’s research found that Third Culture Kids felt their ability to deal with unexpected or unusual events was better than that of their peers, and some went as far as saying they felt more comfortable in new or challenging situations than in the everyday.

A concern for many parents moving abroad with children or teenagers is that they will struggle to adapt to the overhaul of life away from a ‘home’ culture, and assisting in language education is a great way to minimising feelings of being an outsider or not fitting in as well as encouraging lateral thinking.

Making Friends

Starting at a new school is a big step, regardless of your child’s age. International schools around the world offer classes with English as the community language, but just because children aren’t studying at a local school doesn’t mean they won’t benefit from learning the local lingo.

Inside and outside of school hours, making friends is a crucial part of life in a new home. This is true for parents, too! Though it may well be the case that there are plenty of other expats around who speak your language, encouraging bilingualism means that your child will be able to feel at home in their new location much more easily.

Being able to play with other children at the park or on the beach, even if they only share a few words, is less likely to induce anxiety than if they cannot communicate at all. Likewise, at school little things like being able to understand jokes and join in with new groups make all the difference.

Remaining Mobile, or Settling Abroad

A child who learns French could one day travel or live as easily in Belgium as Burkina Faso, in Switzerland or Senegal. Help them to learn Spanish and they’ll find central and south America a breeze, as well as the European nation, while an education in Thai or Malay could be just what they need to comfortably settle down in a country they’ve called home throughout their formative years.

Even if you think that your child might not become totally fluent in additional languages, equipping them with even a basic level of bilingualism ensures that they find it easy to remain at home in the global community. Those of us with English as our native tongue can grow used to muddling our way through international travels, reliant on other people’s knowledge of our own preferred way to communicate. But for expats, it is not just practical but also polite to try to communicate using local language.

Looking to the future, young people wanting to study and work abroad generally find this much easier to do if they have a good grasp on another language. Expat children have the opportunity to be immersed in additional languages, which can make them easier to learn and to excel at.

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*This article was written in collaboration with Aetna International. 

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