Finn-Guild and the Finnish Schools breaking the myths of multilingualism

Text: Sari Kämppi
Photo: Hanna Mononen

Doctor Jean-Marc Dewaele is a professor in Applied Linguistics and Multilingualism at Birkbeck University of London. He does not only study and teach multilingualism but is also a trilingual father. In October we invited Jean-Marc to speak at Finn-Guild’s conference for Finnish School Teachers, where we discussed the advantages of multilingualism and the prejudices around the topic.  We asked Jean-Marc about the most common myths concerning multilingualism.

Will it be unbeneficial for a child to learn two or more languages?

"Being exposed to several languages will not confuse a child and will not hinder their progress in foreign languages. A child understands that people use different languages, and if they are exposed to these languages enough, they will learn them naturally.

It is beneficial to consistently use one language when speaking to your child. My daughter Livia was exposed to French, Dutch and English the moment she was born and even to Urdu from the age of 5 months to the age of 2,5 years. Our Pakistani child-minder talked to the children in Urdu as well as in English. For a moment I thought Urdu was too much, but there was no need to worry. Livia’s language learning wasn’t hindered by Urdu, even though her Urdu remained very basic. She became fluent in French and Dutch, but English became the dominant language, as it is the language of school and friends.

Aged 11, Livia applied for a prestigious private school. In the entrance exam, she got the highest grade in English along with an award, which meant a small but very welcome discount on the school fees. This shows that a multilingual student can easily beat her monolingual friends in language skills. Livia got As in English, French and Spanish in her GCSEs and an A* from French in her A-levels. She is now a second year student at Oxford, studying French and Linguistics."

What if a child struggles with learning just one language because of stammering or dyslexia? Will a second language confuse the child even more?

"We don’t really know what causes stammering or dyslexia. It is therefore not right to assume that adding more languages to the mix would only make things more difficult. Actually, it is usually the parent who finds bi- or multilingualism a big issue, not the child. Usually children take it in their stride and wonder why adults make such a fuss about their multilingualism."

What kind of advice would you give to parents who are not supported by their partners or the people around them and therefore feel alone in the field of multilingual parenting?

"Our book (Festman, J., Poarch, G. & Dewaele, J-M. (2017) Raising Multilingual Children. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.*) will prove your partner that raising a multilingual child successfully can happen.

We have dedicated an entire chapter of the book for practical tips and details about making learning and using languages fun. We have included frequently asked questions about multilingual families and language learning strategies. The goal is to ensure that a child is exposed to a second or a third language enough with the help of books, songs, and talking with family members, nannies and friends.

Making a child sit in front of the television for hours and hours is not enough, because exposing to a language passively is useless for learning a language. A child must actively use the language by communicating with others. Occasional mistakes and mixing languages are not major concerns: even monolinguals make mistakes, and they will disappear as time goes by. Same applies to multilingual children, too."

The discussion is lively when the teachers of 12 Finnish Schools all over Britain ask Jean-Marc questions on teaching Finnish and the problems of language learning. Question by question he ensures that you can ignore those who question raising a child multilingual. Language learning is an asset that needs to be nurtured. Every language is like a flower that thrives depending on what kind of care it receives.

The speaker and the audience seem to be in silent understanding about the inevitable challenges of raising a child multilingual. The two-day training has been fascinating, and the teachers and parents have been given great material and advice on continuing Finnish studies in the Finnish Schools and at home. In addition, every participant now knows for sure that multilingualism is something you need to cherish!


* As a Finn-Guild member you get a 30% discount and free delivery on book orders from Multilingual Matters  -online store,, with the code MEMBER30.

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