A little dilemma of late – and no, it’s not to do with the late-month post! It’s more existential than that; a concern that, in this era of Brexit and Trump and Bolsonaro, merely saying you like international and liberal values might not be enough.
So how on earth is this connected to a language blog, you may well ask? Well, it all started the other night in a local hostelry (as many existential angsts seem to do). I met there a man called Al, who was an electrician with a lugubrious way of speaking and – I detected through the noise – an Essex-y accent. Speaking to Al, it turned out he was actually Danish. He had moved to Essex when he was but eight or nine years old, without much English, and had acquired his native-like interaction thence. In a moment of levity, I told him he was a pretty good example of the Critical Period Hypothesis – that he had obviously learned the L2 (English) early enough to be indistinct from a native. If he had been later in arriving, he might have lost that chance.
Which made me think about my own offspring. I have written before about my commitment to the international system, and though we were unable to get him into our preferred primary school, my elder son attended a multilingual nursery. My concern is that his attendance at what seems like a perfectly good British primary school will result in his losing whatever Spanish and Mandarin his nursery was able to engender. This is based on my own poor second and third language educational experience at a perfectly good state secondary, and the observable and popular belief that very few English people speak a second language with any communicative competence whatsoever. I can see him leaving primary school with a solidly English-language worldview.
But, given that we speak English at home, have no immediate plans to live in any other country, have only English-speaking relatives and largely English-speaking friends, it is very difficult to understand how we can make his L2 and L3 (and beyond) more interesting, more natural, to him. Without, that is, obliging or forcing him to attend extra classes or have a tutor, which, even at this young age, might well up counterproductive. Also, when committing to educating your children in a language, there is a sort of ‘buying-in’ to the culture that feels necessary: some allegiance or a kind of a identity commitment, which seems at best like appropriation and at worst like fakery.
My concern, at heart, is that this is my narrow-mindedness speaking; that we should have nothing to fear from the celebration of difference, and his identity will only be strengthened by exposure to more diversity. This is where the link to the illiberalising world comes in: I want my children to be part of an outward-looking community, celebrating variety and diversity and pursuing international values like tolerance and inquiry. The challenge is living that, rather than simply paying it lip service.
So does that necessarily include multilingualism? Maybe, but maybe not. We live in London, and there is no immediate danger of this great city becoming less diverse. He will have opportunities, and the parents’ role is, I guess, to support and encourage the values they say they believe in.