Tower of Babel got a bad rap

Those of us who live in predominantly monolingual English-speaking parts of the world are particularly poor when it comes to speaking other languages. We make excuses, such as ‘I don’t have an aptitude for languages’ or we convince ourselves that we can’t do it. The fact is, we have the luxury of speaking an international language, and that makes us lazy and scared. Our language is the majority language of North America, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the UK, and an official or minority language in large parts of Africa, India, Oceania and elsewhere. In addition, many northern Europeans speak English as a second language. And let us not forget the millions of indigenous peoples worldwide who have been forced to adopt English to the detriment of their own languages. From our privileged position, we English speakers tend to view monolingualism as normal. But it is a one-sided privilege. When we travel abroad, we expect others to communicate with us in our language, without realising that our dogged monolingualism necessitates others’ bilingualism.

Far from people having or not having an aptitude for languages, bilingualism and multilingualism are the norm. South Africa, for example, has 11 official languages and recognises 8 other regional languages. I have met South Africans who can fluently speak five or six languages and have a smattering of three or four more. This is common. Papua New Guinea has over 850 indigenous languages, many from unrelated language families, and yet, the majority of Papua New Guineans are multilingual. I have friends from mainland Europe who can easily converse in Swedish, Dutch, German, English and French.

We are all born with an innate ability to speak language, but the form that language takes is moulded by our culture. There is nothing in our DNA that makes us capable of only speaking one language. One of the driving forces behind our decision to settle in Sanlúcar was our desire to give our children the opportunity to learn a second language. When we moved here, I had a poor grasp of French, an even poorer grasp of Japanese and Irish, and a smattering of Inuktitut. Julian had a similar grasp of French, Spanish and German. Neither of us were in a position (as home-schoolers at the time) to instil in our children a solid grounding in any language other than English.

The opportunity to enrol the girls in a small rural school, where they would be immersed in Spanish (Andalucian) language and culture, was not one to turn down. The girls were five and six years old when they started school and they didn’t speak a word of Spanish. They’re eight and nine now, and are pretty much fluent. Lily is equally comfortable in either language, while Katie finds it easier to read and write in Spanish.

What I didn’t anticipate when we made the decision to enrol our children in school in a small Spanish village was how multilingualism would become the norm for them. We are not the only immigrants to this beautiful part of the world. Here on the Rio Guadiana, we have friends and acquaintances from Holland, Lithuania, Germany, France, Belgium and Japan. The river separates Spain and Portugal. I’ll never forget Lily’s birthday party last year, where eight little girls ate pizza and played on the beach and between them spoke Spanish, French, Dutch and English. Their waiter was Portuguese. My children are often in the homes of their Dutch, Lithuanian or Japanese friends, immersed in the language of those homes. It’s a wonderful thing.

I’m not expecting my daughters to become fluent Lithuanian or Japanese speakers any time soon. Rather, their immersion in those environments normalises multilingualism. They become used to and comfortable with being in spaces where their language does not dominate. They accept that people change languages depending on to whom they are speaking and the topic of conversation. They understand that, when someone is speaking a language they do not understand, they are not doing so in order to exclude. And they are learning that language expresses culture and some things are not easily translatable from one language to another.

Language is a powerful and beautiful human trait. And every language opens up a new window on the world. We made a good decision when we dropped anchor in this multilingual little corner of the world.