The advantages of speaking another language are well documented with new research adding to the list of bilingual benefits all the time. From improved problem solving and learning capabilities, to being more resilient against the onset of dementia to name but a few. There are also the economic, social, and cultural benefits to consider. On a personal level, I’ve always loved being able to switch back and forth between English and Italian to the amazement of my monolingual friends, even though in recent years “il mio italiano è un po ‘arrugginito”, but I still get by.
However being monolingual in the U.K is not uncommon. 10 years ago a survey carried out by the European Commission found the UK & Ireland were the two countries in Europe with the lowest rates of bilingualism – defined as being able to hold a conversation in more than one language. In fact it’s still predominantly English speaking countries that get a failing grade in this respect. That’s no doubt much to do with the fact that, even with Mandarin at the top of the world’s most spoken languages list with 1.2 billion, English is still by far the world’s lingua franca: the language of science and technology, business relations, diplomacy, popular culture and travel. Therefore one could argue that the high levels of bilingualism in non-English speaking countries is still driven by the specific need to learn English.
I must admit, I’ve not always been particularly interested in languages. I was first introduced to a second language when I started secondary school, but it didn’t excite me. I struggled, and spent most of the time “editing” the illustrations in the language books and laughing at the guy with the horrendous French accent. He would have us all in stitches.. but looking back now, at least he had a go.
No, I became interested in languages a couple of years later. I was about 15 and it was my first family holiday abroad in Spain. We were all sat in a restaurant to eat when I decided to ask the waiter where the toilet was in Spanish. I’d found a guide book on the aeroplane with a short list of Spanish words and just put some together to form the question. It did backfire a bit though, as the waiter replied to me in full speed Spanish. I hadn’t a clue what he’d said but not wanting to disappoint my proud (and surprised) parents, got up from the table, said “gracias” and casually walked towards a door in one corner of the restaurant hoping it was the loo…it wasn’t. But at least I had a go.
But that experience didn’t put me off, it rather ignited an interest for languages and travel.
I like to think I became ‘properly’ bilingual whist living in Rome during the mid 90’s. From arriving and only knowing only a few handy phrases to speaking quite fluently took about 6 months, after that I was really just adding to my vocabulary. Being immersed in the country and trying to work out there, I had little choice but to learn the native tongue. But this time I had an advantage… I actually wanted to learn the language. I loved the country, culture and way of life. I wanted to read, speak and listen to all things Italian. Oh and the food wasn’t bad either.
Being bilingual certainly helped me make friends, progress and make more of my time whilst living in Italy. I was even known to my friends out there as “Marco”, and was often told I spoke Italian with a roman accent, which I was very proud of. Being bilingual also helped me when I finally returned to the UK in finding work in the hospitality industry.
Thankfully now as language learning becomes ever more popular and the fact that being bilingual brings recognised benefits, many people are now exposed to a second language at a younger age. That’s good news, as we know children generally have a much easier time picking up foreign languages than adults.
We’d love to hear what motivated you to learn a second language. Was there a defining moment?
Here at Unuhi we want to play a part in a child’s discovery of new languages. We want to make the learning process between a bilingual parent and child as fun as possible, providing fun short stories in the two languages of your choice – we have 20 languages available!