“This place tried to turn my words into stones,” Seren says. She moved to rural Ohio less than six months ago with her husband and three daughters. Her oldest is a college freshman, the younger girls are in 3rd and 5th grade.
Seren grew up in New York City, an only child of busy parents who traveled often for business. Her Welsh-speaking grandmother lived with them and raised Seren on the stories, songs, and traditions of her homeland. In her teens, Seren finally visited Wales with her grandmother. Soon after, her grandmother passed away but the language she imparted to her granddaughter thrived. Seren went on to get an undergraduate degree in history and a graduate degree in Welsh studies.
She and her husband agreed they would raise their children in a dual-language home. Seren speaks Welsh to her children exclusively, her husband speaks to them in English. This is true both at home and in public. They know the benefits of being bilingual. Here are just a few:
- Bilingual kids have enhanced social skills and communication abilities. In part this has to do with more experience understanding the perspective of the person speaking. This involves determining social cues and what’s called “theory of mind” — the ability to recognize one’s own motivations (intentions, beliefs, desires, knowledge, etc) and the understanding that others have their own motivations.
- Dual-language students, in one study, were a full grade level ahead of their monolingual peers in English-reading skills by the end of middle school. Some children in the study were just learning English, yet they outperformed monolingual native English speakers on tests. Chances are this has to do with the way learning two languages enhances executive function (working memory, impulse control, focus, and attention). Studies continue to show bilingual children have stronger executive function.
- Early exposure to a second language affects how the brain organizes languages and improves its ability to learn a new language later in life, even if the first language is forgotten.
- Bilingual people continue to benefit into old age if they continue to use both languages frequently. Brain scans indicate that bilingual people develop greater cognitive reserves. This extra gray matter makes a big difference. In people whose brains show similar levels of dementia, bilingual people show symptoms on average four years later than a monolingual person experiences them. This also may be true in stroke recovery. One study showed cognitive recovery was twice as likely for dual language speakers as for monolinguals after a stroke. Overall, using one’s brain to speak two languages actually delays cognitive decline.
Growing up, Seren says she remembers being a little worried each time a new friend met her grandmother because she and her grandmother spoke to each other in another language. But without fail her friends thought her grandmother was cool. Many of her friends incorporated a few Welsh words into their conversations in a way that became their own informal slang.
Seren’s older daughter also struggled a bit with a bilingual home when she was a teenager. But she’s also known from the time she was a small child that fewer and fewer people speak Welsh. Only 11 percent of people living in Wales speak it fluently, a little over 300,000 people in total. When their daughter is home, she quite naturally speaks in one language to her mother and another to her father.
Since moving to Ohio, however, this bilingual family met with difficulties they never expected. While at a school function for her younger daughter, a classmate’s mother overheard Seren speaking to her daughter in Welsh. That girl later spread the word that she wasn’t allowed to play with Seren’s child because she “wasn’t American.” (Every member of Seren’s family is an American-born citizen, although that’s not the point.)
Another time her middle daughter had a friend over. When Seren and her two younger daughters exchanged a few amused Welsh words about the snack being put on the table, the 10-year-old friend accused them of laughing about her and said she wanted to go home.
And waiting in line at a grocery store, Seren and her daughters spoke to each other in Welsh while the woman in front of them was being checked out. The woman said loudly to the cashier, “It’s disgusting the way people come to this country and can’t even learn the language. Makes me sick.”
Seren says she can’t imagine what other people must be enduring to keep their culture and language alive in a time when frightening acts of intolerance are on the rise.
After her daughters pleaded with her, she made a concession. For the first time in 18 years, Seren changed the way she speaks to her daughters. They now keep Welsh to themselves. Speaking only English around others, she says, “is like losing Nain all over again.”
But she hasn’t given up. She is working with the elementary school to put on an annual international fair where the world’s diversity will be celebrated in song, story, art, and food. She’s also planning to invite new friends and neighbors to a traditional Welsh Christmas party at her home this year.