'It’s her choice but there are myths about it' - Language expert on Maura Derrane's decision not to speak Irish with son Cal
RTE presenter and proud gaeilgeoir Maura Derrane has admitted that doesn’t speak her native language with her four-year-old son.
Maura, who hails from Inis Mór, speaks Irish on air with her Afternoon Show co-host Dáithí Ó Sé, but she recently told RTE.ie that she doesn’t speak it with her son Cal while he's getting to grips with English.
Bilingual or multilingual children have been found to be more creative, better at focusing on tasks and problem solving; and bilingualism has also been found to delay the onset of dementia.
“Gaeilge is a big deal," Derrane told RTE.ie recently. "I haven't started speaking Irish, I will admit, to Cal yet. I kind of felt that I wanted to get one language kind of straightened out first before moving on to the next but he's going to be spending a lot of the summer at home in Inishmore,".
Dr Ciara O’Toole, a lecturer in speech and language therapy in University College Cork, has researched the benefits of bilingualism and speaks some Irish at home with her own children.
Once a parent is comfortable speaking in a language, the benefits of speaking a second language to their children are huge, she says.
“It’s [Maura’s] choice, but if it’s an ill-advised choice because of something like she thinks her child might be delayed in terms of language then that’s not the case.”
One of the main myths attached to bilingual parenting is that children will experience language delay, Dr O’Toole says.
“Well-meaning professionals might say you should give up that language and only speak English, and that’s just wrong.”
“We would always encourage people to speak their mother tongue to children, because if you’re not it can feel uncomfortable for you as a parent.”
“There’s a myth that if you speak your main language to your child that they’re going be behind in school where everything is taught through English.”
“That’s not the case. When you compare them with a mono-language child they might look delayed but that’s because you’ve only looked at one language, but when you look at the second language as well, you’ll find that the child will have more words.”
She added: “If you look at only one language, you’ll underestimate what the children know.”
“Sometimes they might, within a sentence or within a word, be using both languages. So half the word is in one language and half is in another. So a French-English speaking child who is saying “thank you” might say “thaci” – the first part being “tha” from “thank you” and the second half being “ci” from the French “merci”. People might think that that’s because they’re mixed-up and confused.”
“But that’s a complete myth as well. Bilingual people do this all the time. And children are very tuned in to who can understand one language and who can’t. It makes them more aware socially of who can understand me.”
Dr O’Toole who has proficiency in Irish, says she introduced her children first to Irish by reading books to them. This was how she herself felt most comfortable. Now her family’s conversations at home are peppered with Irish phrases that come naturally.
“I often wish I was a native speaker but I’m not so I just do it in my own way. If you are a native speaker you’re giving your child an opportunity to speak another language at home. It’s something to be embraced. The benefits of bilingualism are well known at this stage.”
But Dr O'Toole said: “Don’t speak a language you’re not comfortable or fluent in, it’s important for everyone not to be afraid to speak at home.”
“Obviously telling someone who isn’t good at English to speak English isn’t good for them at all. You have to able to talk to the child about the colours and what you see and express yourself to them comfortably.”
“I didn’t speak to my children in Irish, I bought books in Irish and read those with them.”
“Now they’re going to a naíonra and Gaelscoil. We mix and match at home, we say things like we’re doing our “obair bhaile” (homework) at home. They mix up their languages all the time and that’s fine, I don’t worry about that."
"They have to be able to interact, speak and play in a language. It’s always really important to create a language-rich environment, where you’re speaking to your children at dinner time, allowing them to talk back to you, reading to your child, expressing the world around you.”
She added: “It’s more unusual to only speak one language now, internationally people have English as a second language. People who don’t speak another language are in the minority.”
Earlier is better, because children absorb it naturally, Dr O'Toole added.
However, she added: "But it’s not true that you can’t learn a language in adolescence and adulthood. You can.”