A few days ago, I stumbled upon quite an interesting article on the website of Science magazine, which discussed a study on the ways polyglots’ and hyperpolyglots’ brain reacts when they hear different languages, ultimately aiming to understand the human “language network”. The participants were exposed to various texts in different languages, categorized in three main groups – native languages, languages they were familiar with to a different degree and unfamiliar ones. When they heard a language they knew, the brain produced a strong reaction, seemingly close to the way a monolingual brain would react. However, when they heard an unfamiliar one, related to a language they already knew, the brain was even more stimulated and fired up. So, the more familiar they were with a language, the stronger their brain’s reaction was with one exception – their native language. Each time they heard their native language, the brain quietened down. The authors pointed out, this suggested there’s something truly unique about the languages we learn earlier in life, especially the ones we learn when we are young, at home.
Our brains are naturally wired to preserve their power, so they look for the easiest way to communicate and get their meaning across. Indeed, the deeper a language is anchored in our brain, the less energy the brain needs to access it and work with it. The more experience we have with something, the less we need to think when doing it and the more naturally it comes to us. This principle is also valid for languages. Here is a personal example. My husband and I speak English together, but when I first met him, he didn’t speak even a word of Bulgarian. Sometimes, he told me, when I was especially tired, I would start talking about things in Bulgarian without even realising it, so he couldn’t understand anything. And when he brought my attention to it and asked me to repeat in English, I had no idea I had spoken in a language different than English. So, even though I only had very few opportunities to speak my native language once I left my home country at the age of 18, my brain still reverted to it when it was lacking resources.
Indeed, the language(s) we learn early in life hold a special place and shape our personality and (cultural) identity, invoking a sense of belonging, of being rooted somewhere. We all want to pass these languages to our children, but often find it challenging, especially when we live in areas where they are not so popular, or we don’t have the community and resources to support them. That is why International Mother Language Day is so important. It aims to promote multilingualism and linguistic diversity; to celebrate native languages and raise awareness about how important it is to preserve them and pass them on to our children.
What are your plans for this year’s International Mother Language Day? Here are some ideas to help you celebrate your language(s) and heritage:
- Read books – explore new books or revisit old favourite ones.
- Play games – introduce your child to a new game that you cherished as a child.
- Play word games – try to figure out which words are similar to words in other languages that you speak at home, or you are familiar with. We have played this game with my husband’s family, and I have found many Bulgarian words that had been adopted from French.
- Discover fun facts about your language. Do some research (online) beforehand or together with your child.
- Sing songs together – use the opportunity to teach your child some new children songs in your language. If you can’t think of any, YouTube might be a great place to start.
- Watch classic films – they will not only teach your child new vocabulary but will also unveil new aspects of the language and culture.
- Involve the other parent/caregiver, even if they understand very little in that language – the family celebrating together will help create a special bond and give new meaning to the importance of that language within your family universe.
- Participate in celebrations in a local cultural / community / language centre, embassy, etc.
- Join online campaigns or events.
- Organise an informal get-together with other families who share the same language. You can post a note about this on your school internal message board, physical message board or ask the director / teachers for help. Meeting new people who speak the same language can be very enriching, will certainly expand your child’s horizon and provide additional (interactive) sources of language input.
- Bring your children together with friends who speak the same native language. Have them create a story, write some (simple) sentences (depending on their literacy level), have them illustrate their own story books and present the final product. You can help them with the writing or even write what they’ve come up with, which will also give you an opportunity to model some good writing in your home language.
Alternatively: if you don’t know anyone who speaks your native language in your community, you can also do this activity over video chat with friends or family members.
- With older children – you can explore fables or proverbs in your home language. Look for similar ones in the native language of the other parent (if both partners have different first languages) or in the societal/school language and compare, and contrast them. You can explore which words are outdated and no longer used in the modern version of your language.
- This one will require a bit more work and preparation but it’s a fantastic way to introduce your language and some bits of your culture to your child(ren)’s classmates and school.
Approach your school / homeroom teacher / parent council about doing a small celebration, introducing and appreciating the different languages they have in class (or in the school, but that will require a lot more planning). You can bring books and different objects, listen to music and read aloud, acquainting everyone with how the language sounds, what the letters look like and maybe even teaching them some words. Inspire other parents to follow your example, promoting language equality and inclusion!
- Spread the word and share the message on social media! Let other people know how incredibly important native languages are. They lay the foundation for all other language learning and desperately need to be developed, maintained and preserved.
There are so many people who are led to believe that their language has a lower status compared to other languages. That it is somehow worse and less valuable. But they need to know that this is simply not true. Every single language is important, valuable and a huge asset, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!
There is indeed something very special about the languages we learn early in life. They not only shape the ways we think and view the world, but also influence the ways we connect and communicate with those around us. They stand for the deep connection to our linguistic and cultural roots. That’s why I would like to end today’s post with something very personal and share a Bulgarian folklore song that was sent to space (literally) a few decades ago. It still moves me to my core every single time I hear it. I hope you enjoy it and Happy International Mother Language Day!
And this is the song Излел е Дельо Xайдутин /izlel e Delio haidutin/ by the absolutely incredible Valia Balkanska : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7lJYq6bjHTQ
I so agree with you! I recently wrote a book called Superheroes in which five kids, who speak three different languages, have three different adventures using those languages. Meant to make expat kids proud of their mother tongue, and unilingual kids appreciate the value of learning another language (through nik-nak.eu)
Aw, this sounds great! Thanks for your comment. I will be sure to look up your book – sounds cool!
Thanks! Hope you like it. (you may also like my Betty & Cat books – a different approach to bilingual books).
Wow, you’ve written multiple books! I will check them out. Thanks!