Mind your language: the benefits of bilingualism

Many foreign-born parents living in Ireland are determined their children will grow up proficient in their mother tongue

Greta Fioravanti is not yet four, but already she is talking in three languages, thanks to having a German mother, an Italian father and living in Dublin.

That’s not to say starting pre-school didn’t have its challenges for her because they don’t speak English at their home in Portobello. Greta’s mother, Claudia Kunkel, engages with her daughter through German, while the little girl’s father, Domenico Fioravanti, speaks Italian to her. As a couple, they communicate in Italian.

“We speak in Italian to each other because we met in Italy but the good thing is, he is able to understand German and also speak it, so even if I speak to Greta in German, he understands what I am saying. It is nice because he can interfere – or not nice,” she laughs.

Naturally a very chatty child, Greta went into pre-school being able to converse easily in German and Italian. But faced with trying to make herself understood among English-speaking children, she started pushing them out of frustration.


Claudia says it was a “big help” that her daughter’s preschool teacher had experience working with bilingual children and recognised the behaviour as being related to language learning. Children in that situation can react differently: some act out like Greta, others may withdraw, but generally they will adjust very quickly.

As parents, Claudia and Domenico weren’t criticised for not speaking more English at home but simply asked to tell Greta not to push other children. It was also suggested that instead of Claudia taking her daughter home early, she should leave her in until the end when stories were read, which would help increase her vocabulary. “After two months, she was totally fine,” says Claudia. “It was just her being impatient and wanting to communicate.”

Claudia is an outreach officer with Mother Tongues, founded in 2017 by Italian native Francesca La Morgia, a lecturer in linguistics at Trinity College and a mother of three Italian-Irish children. The organisation aims to support foreign-born parents in using their mother tongue and to reassure them that bilingualism is good for children. They often give up so quickly, says Claudia, when they're told how important English is for their children.

Mother Tongues Festival

International Mother Language Day this Thursday, February 21st, will be marked by the second Mother Tongues Festival, first in Galway (February 22nd-23rd) and then in Dublin (March 2nd-3rd). The wide-ranging programme, featuring 20 different languages, will include a talk on multilingual mothers and their mother tongues by Lithuanian-born academic Egle Kackute.

Language is just one aspect of migrant motherhood that fascinates Kackute, who has conducted post-doctoral research as part of the Motherhood Project at Maynooth University. She has explored why some migrant women "mother" in their native tongue and others don't.

The festival, she says, raises awareness of how Ireland has “very recently and very dramatically become a multilingual, multi-cultural country. People come with their languages, their culture, their mindset and they are 100 per cent bilingual, or trilingual, and the children they are bringing up will be at least bilingual.”

Kackute was living in French-speaking Geneva with her Scottish-born husband Andy when they had their son Inis, now aged 11. He was premature, the birth was difficult and, with no extended family around for support, she struggled with post-natal depression.

When he was born, there was absolutely no way I was not going to bring him up Lithuanian

“When he was born, there was absolutely no way I was not going to bring him up Lithuanian,” she says. “It’s a post-colonial place – people fought and died so Lithuania could exist. If you are a good Lithuanian mother, you pass on your language to your children. To me, it was a no-brainer.”

She and Andy spoke English at home and were living in a French-speaking city, so she reckoned Inis would acquire those languages naturally. But how would he become fluent in Lithuanian?

Being a researcher, she consulted numerous books and devised a strategy to bring Inis up bilingually. Part of the plan she presented to her husband was to go to Lithuania for three months every summer. But Andy vetoed the idea, not wanting to spend that amount of time there, nor did he want to be away from his son for that length of time either.

“It was really hard – I took it really badly, considering I was depressed and not feeling very adequate at the time,” she says.

The argument that only three million people speak Lithuanian, so what use was it going to be to Inis, made no sense to her. “This is my language. I literally did not see any difference between French, English and Lithuanian – they were all on a par. I did not choose to be born in a country of three million, but this is where I was born, my language matters just as much as yours.”

She felt there was no time to lose if her son was to be bilingual and even set up a Lithuanian language school in Geneva. “I sang to him, I read to him; I took him to Lithuania as much as I could negotiate. He can speak Lithuanian very well now.”

It is the language through which she and Inis communicate best but “if I speak Lithuanian to him in Andy’s presence, it can only be information destined for Inis because Andy doesn’t have enough Lithuanian to pick up on it. He sort of switches off a little.”

Kackute sees language and culture as inseparable, and recognises the challenge of bringing up a child across a cultural divide. “I may be cosmopolitan now but I am still Lithuanian and my son is not. He is Lithuanian as well but not in the same way as I am. He was brought up with so many cultural impulses. How do I make sure that we have that emotional link – that we will always understand what the other one is about?”

Although she chose to use her mother tongue with Inis, she is multilingual, so speaks to him in English when there are other people around because it would be rude, she says, to talk in a language only the two of them understand.

“Then there are mothers who only mother in their native tongue because they are not fluent in the language of their host country. There are others who only mother in the language of the host country – for lots of different reasons.”

Women coming from a traumatic background may not want their children to have anything to do with a past they are trying to escape. Or women may have left their native country years previously and made a life for themselves in another country.

“It would be unnatural to use their mother tongue with a child, as it has nothing to do with their emotional life anymore.”

Having arrived in Ireland in 2016, French is now “my headache” for Inis, she says. “Before he had that language naturally, now he has to become a learner of French. This transition is proving a little bit trying. He misses speaking French but he is losing it now.”

Kackute is doing what she can to keep her son’s fluency up; a tutor comes to the house once a week and she has found a French family they can meet up with.  She tries to bring him back to Geneva regularly, but it is expensive and difficult to find the time.

Learning Irish

Although they could have pushed to have Inis exempted from learning Irish at the boys’ national school he attends near their home in Maynooth, Co Kildare, they didn’t want another reason for him to be different from most of his classmates. After having extra Irish lessons at home for a while, he is now managing fine.

Kackute, who teaches a course on contemporary women's French writing at Vilnius University, believes she and Andy, a chemist working in emerging technologies, will continue to base themselves here, at least until Inis has finished his secondary education.

Since last October, she has been living in a house for the first time in her life – in the newly built estate of Moyglare Hall. It’s an ideal community setting for Inis, with friends and his school nearby.

I have to say the Irish hospitality is a thing; it's true, not a myth. People are extremely helpful

“I have to say the Irish hospitality is a thing; it’s true, not a myth,” she adds. “People are extremely helpful. Nobody ever offered anything to me in Switzerland.

“Here people call to ask if my child needs a lift. I was gobsmacked – I am overwhelmed by the kindness.”

Meanwhile, Claudia says “English will take over soon” in Greta’s life. However, she is glad there are other children at the pre-school who are bilingual “and they kind of push themselves”. Greta’s best friend is half Irish, half Korean, and she talks about how the two of them can speak more than one language.

Does Claudia fear her daughter will lose her ability to speak both German and Italian as she becomes immersed in English outside the home?

“Yes and no,” she replies. “When we go to Germany, she is just like a German girl. She has no accent – speech-wise she is really good. But if you are not exposed that much to language, you might lose it. So many people say ‘children are like sponges’ but they need a certain amount of language exposure or they won’t be as proficient.”

It is why it is good, she adds, to connect with German and Italian families here, who are also raising bi-lingual children, or with Greta’s grandparents, so her daughter knows “it is not only mummy who is speaking this weird language but that there’s a whole country behind her”.

‘We try to have him surrounded by French in Ireland’

Frenchman Alain Servant’s first language was actually Spanish because his parents moved from Bordeaux to Bolivia for work when he was just three months’ old and they spoke Spanish at home in an effort to speed up their fluency.

But nearly four decades later, having lived in Dublin for seven years with his Irish wife Zoe and now being tri-lingual, he considers his “mother tongue” to be French. He didn’t speak English well when he came here but learned through talking to people and listening to the radio.

A singer songwriter, “I am still thinking in French,” Alain (45) explains, but he writes in English – with rewriting help from Zoe (40), who is a researcher in sociology. “Language is a way of seeing the world; we don’t describe the weather in the same way in English as in French,” he says.

Their four-year-old son Solomon speaks French to his father, English to his mother and is very adept at switching to whichever is appropriate when with extended family or friends.

As a family, living on a barge on the Grand Canal, they generally converse through French but it does depend on the subject, Alain says. “Everyday life is more in French,” but for complex discussions, both Alain and Zoe may prefer to use their mother tongue. “We are really just jumping from one to another.” In Ireland they speak more English but in France, where they go at least twice a year for long periods, they speak more French.

Alain was eight when his family returned from Bolivia to France, where years later he met Zoe in a circus tent. He was working with circus people and she was a trapeze artist.

Solomon will start Irish when he goes to school in September but his parents don’t plan to introduce him to Spanish just yet. “We thought it was enough to have already French and English.”

Alain has no doubt that his son’s bilingual upbringing is a huge advantage – “it helps a lot of things: reading stories in French, reading stories in English. Even the music we listen to – music in English and music in French. We try to have him surrounded by French in Ireland.”

‘Sometimes I say we all speak in Spanish today’

Three-year-old Alicia Alderete-Westbrook’s dolls speak in Spanish at home in Galway. It’s also her language of choice for singing songs.

"For her, Spanish is about playing and English is about communicating," says her Spanish mother, Pilar Alderete Diez (43), a lecturer in Spanish at NUI Galway, who is married to Irishman David Westbrook (44), an engineer at Medtronic.

But gradually Alicia, who will be four in March, is starting to understand that Spanish is also about communicating. While Pilar speaks Spanish directly to Alicia, the family speaks English in the house and they don’t follow the model of each parent using only their mother tongue for two-way engagement with the child.

“Sometimes I say we all speak in Spanish today and I force her to speak Spanish back to me. But, generally, I don’t force her because I don’t want her to have negative feelings about it. She will learn it, the same as I learnt English later on.”

To lessen the emotional association of a language with one parent only, some families may allocate times in the week when only one language can be spoken in the home. Others, Pilar says, might allocate rooms to the two different languages, where one is spoken in the kitchen, for instance, and the other in the play room.

There is a theory that a minimum of 25 hours a week of interaction in the minority language is needed for a child to become proficient. “I struggle to get 25 hours,” she says. “We kind of make up at the weekend but it is not easy to get 25 hours of interaction.”

Pilar, who first came to Galway for a year as an Erasmus student 22 years ago, has learnt Irish – unlike her Irish-born husband, because his family moved to Nigeria when David was seven. When he was sent back at the age of 11 to be a boarder at Glenstal Abbey, he was exempt from learning Irish.

“I love Irish, absolutely adore it,” enthuses Pilar, who did a diploma in Irish at the college when she was pregnant. “There are things in Irish that are closer to Spanish than English could be. I love the way it works and the world view behind it.”