I have always spoken in English to my son, born in Spain, with a Spanish mother who does not speak English and an English father (yours truly). Ever since he was born, and before even, our relationship is in English, despite living in a Spanish and Galician speaking environment, in northwest Spain. Much to my frustration, he refused to answer in English, but for the occasional mixing up of languages with “Mira ese black cat”.

So I carried on with my own personal crusade, like a voice crying out in the linguistic desert, me being the only lunatic who would talk to him in a language that nobody else seemed to speak. The break came for me when he was 5 years old. Some friends came to stay from Holland, and their son, about the same age as mine, only spoke Dutch and English. The lingua franca between the two was English so, inevitably, Roi launched off, otherwise they couldn’t play together, and it has been plain sailing since then.

Now at the age of 17, he is working in a theatre group and has performed several times in public. In one of these plays, he sang “Singing in the rain” in English while the rest of the play was in Galician or Spanish. My conclusion is that children learn their “mother tongue” as a matter of survival, because they (and we) are still animals. They soon learn the sounds that the people around them make and they imitate. It’s a matter of adaptation to their environment to achieve survival in the way of food, clothing, warmth, affection, social acceptance, etc. so it should not come as a surprise to us bilingual parents when we find, much to our frustration, that they have some kind of refusal to speak a language not spoken by most of the people surrounding them. Small but not stupid! Picking up the mother tongue, or a second language or a third is no sign of a talent for languages. But it does mean that they are adapting to social conditioning, which basically is a matter of pure survival, for our offspring and for all of us. On a final note, I am convinced that having three languages in his thought patterns has helped him no end to be good at other school subjects, including sciences, as well as giving a broader outlook on life.

Interesting comments here: (

The German philosopher Goethe said that “The person who knows only one language does not truly know that language”

In immigrant families, a child may learn only the minority language at home. They may become fully bilingual after they start school and learn the majority language. But a common historical phenomenon is that such children later forget the minority language, or retain only a receptive understanding, without full speaking fluency. There may be many complex psychological and social reasons, such as embarrassment at feeling different from peers. Yet in many parts of the world, such as Scandinavia, Switzerland and India, multilingualism is universal and is promoted naturally both in homes and school systems from an early age.

Being bilingual actually seems to structurally change the brain. Intellect is related to the density of the brain’s grey matter and brain imaging studies show that bilingual people have denser grey matter than monolinguals. The differences are most pronounced in the area of the left brain that controls language, but a similar trend is seen in the right hemisphere. The effect is more obvious the earlier that a second language was learned.

A brain scanning technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging has been used to study changes in the blood flow of bilinguals while they name objects or describe events in different languages. People who were bilingual from an early age rely on the same critical patch of brain cells for both languages. Those who learned a second language later in life recruit a different segment of the brain for their second language. Apparently children use parts of the brain that are no longer accessible in later life.

Many studies support the idea that the “mental muscles” developed by bilinguals serve them well. The “Simon task” is a research tool that helps to assess how we think. It doesn’t involve language and requires subjects to report whether rapidly changing coloured squares appear on the centre, right or left of the screen. In studies using this test, bilingual children far outperformed their monolingual peers.

Studies of bilingual elderly people have shown a lower incidence of cognitive decline than that seen in monolinguals. It seems that the enhanced computational demands of processing two language systems pay off. The brain has been trained to attend to the meaning of each word and concept in one language, while suppressing the meaning in the other. This ability seems to make bilinguals better than monolinguals at multitasking, even when the tasks don’t directly involve their language skills. So if you are able to give your children the tremendous gift of two languages or more, that may be a great way of improving their brain skills for life.


About ianemmett

ESPAÑOL & ENGLISH Translator and interpreter for over 20 years - I get paid for doing something I enjoy. Tonnes of articles translated
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