Switching from one language to another – kids learn early and become experts

When I was six, we immigrated to Montreal (the English-speaking part) from Holland. Obviously I spoke not a word of English when I started first grade. But I have no memory of being traumatised, etc. I loved it. Everything seemed new, natural and exciting. So I grew up switching from one language to another, and now that I speak three fluently, switching back and forth still seems natural – and fun!

You hear it everywhere in Montreal: people starting a conversation or transaction in one language and finishing in another, in response to the language they hear. I’ve heard the same thing happening in Hong Kong, in Singapore, on a tram in Amsterdam and in South Africa.

Why are we surprised? A five year old is still accumulating vocabulary, and she could care less whether this is a raspberry or a framboise (this was a word one of my early adaptors, Marianne who’s mum is French and whose dad is English, discovered meant the same thing. It was like Christmas in their house that day, her mum tells me!)

Evvan, four years old and French, wasn’t interested in his mum’s translation of the English bits in Au chenil avec Betty & Cat In the kennel. He was more interested in the story, and was able to follow it even though he didn’t speak the “other” language.

I remember as a kid rattling off the Lord’s Prayer in class assuming “into Temptation” was a place called “Intotemptation” (it was a place you could be lead to, after all!). I got there in the end, and without suffering any trauma! My sister, three years younger, had a favourite phrase she used all the time: “none of your bissimiss”. Everyone understood.

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