How can we become multilingual?

1.Can everybody learn languages easily?

There are several ways in which individuals can become multilingual. Many people learn two or more languages by being exposed to them from an early age. This may happen in the home context, for example because the father and the mother each speak a different language with the child and sometimes a third language amongst themselves. This may also happen because the home language is different from the language used at school or with friends or neighbours. Many other people become multilingual later on in life, for example as a result of migration, or with the help of television or the internet, or through formal education, whether in the form of foreign language classes, or of immersion or submersion education (see below: What is the best method for teaching a language?).
Some people learn a language faster than others, but there are no significant hurdles that prevent anyone from learning a second language. In many countries, bilingualism is the norm rather than the exception, regardless of differences in intelligence or language aptitude. The key factor, in language acquisition, is relevance to the learner’s everyday life. A language used in one’s environment will offer many opportunities for practicing the language in a real-world context. The aim, however, should not be overambitious, especially in the case of adults with little time to supplement practice with systematic study. It should not be to completely master a second or third language. Even monolinguals are often very far from knowing their own native language “perfectly”. The ability to engage in everyday conversation with native speakers from another language community should often prove ambitious enough — and highly rewarding.

2. Is there a minimum and maximum age for learning a new language?

No. Both children and adults are able to learn second languages, but there are differences in the way new languages are learned. In the case of young children, the language will be acquired through a spontaneous process at home, in the community or at school. One advantage of early learning is that children will master the pronunciation of a second language more easily than adults. Another is that they are spared much deliberate learning effort, even they too need to distinguish and decipher the different language codes and the distinct writing systems of the languages used around them. This dual or multiple learning task takes more time and effort than deciphering a single code, and may temporarily slow down the learning of one, or perhaps each of their languages, when compared to monolingual children. However, in the process, they develop greater cognitive skills. Moreover, when conditions are right, especially if they get enough exposure to all of their languages, multilingual children will often catch up with their monolingual peers by the end of primary school, if not sooner. If the various languages are not abundantly present in the children’s natural environment, parents, child minders and teachers who want them to become multilingual will need to make the effort of planning and carrying out an adequate linguistic strategy to ensure adequate exposure to each of the languages being learned. (See What should we do to make our children multilingual?)
In the case of teenagers or adults, language learning is generally more formal and requires a more conscious effort. Adult learners are able to consciously analyze the new language and rely on different learning strategies that will help them speed up the language learning process. If there is enough motivation to learn and enough contact with the language to be learned, adults will often learn a language faster than young children, while generally keeping a “foreign accent” forever. However, adults who want to become multilingual will have to find the time and means to attend language classes and above all the opportunities to practice the languages they want to learn, preferably with native speakers. This should be less difficult in Brussels than in many other places, providing people do not remain confined within the boundaries of their own linguistic communities.

3. What is the best method for learning a new language?

There are many different methods for learning a language, each with its advantages and disadvantages. Most important is that the method chosen should match the situation, character and purpose of the learner. Thus, informal learning through communicating with native speakers, for example by living abroad, may lead to excellent communicative skills, whereas formal classroom teaching may result in a more correct grammar and a more precise vocabulary. What is best for an adult need not be best for a child, nor does what is best for a highly sociable personality need to be best for someone more timid. And if you want to learn a language for purely professional purposes, it makes sense to focus on the jargon of your profession, whereas someone who wants to use a language on holidays will require a general vocabulary for everyday use. Whatever the method initially used, however, the learning of another language, just like mother tongue acquisition, is a process that will never be completed, and the best way to keep learning — and indeed to maintain what one has learned — is to keep practicing the language, both passively and actively. Our main language teachers are people patient enough to listen and talk to us in a language we do not know that well but are bold enough to use. Nevertheless, formal teaching has a role to play, and all methods are not equally effective. [See below: What is the best method for teaching a language?]

4. What is the best method for teaching a language?

Traditional classroom methods, still used to some extent today, focus on the learning of rules of grammar and lists of vocabulary. They largely mimic the methods used to teach dead languages such as Latin and Greek and involve only a limited amount of communicative practice. They may give older learners a good grounding in the language but can seldom be successful in the absence of listening and speaking practice outside the classroom. Today, less formal methods are generally considered far more suitable, especially for young learners.
Immersion education involves teaching some non-language subjects (mathematics or history, for example) in a language different from the home language of the pupils, in which the other subjects are taught. A carefully elaborated version of it is called Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), or Enseignement d’une matière par intégration d’une langue étrangère (EMILE). It is systematically used in a number of Belgian schools, most of them in Wallonia, and at secondary level in the network of European Schools, including the five located in Brussels. Obviously, this method of learning through being taught a subject in a language different from one’s native language is not restricted to primary and secondary education and is commonly used in higher and adult education. For example, most Belgian universities now offer courses in English accessible to foreign and local students alike.
While there is now a wide consensus about the superiority of language learning through immersion over traditional methods, there doubts about whether it is appropriate in all contexts. How well it works will depend, for example, on how many children have the school’s second language as their home language and therefore tend to speak it among themselves (which would tend to be the case for many Dutch-language schools in Brussels and its periphery if they practised immersion teaching for French). It will also depend on how many children have neither of the school languages as their home language : for them, immersion would amount to double submersion (see Is it a good idea to send children to school in a language different from the home language?).

5. Can the media improve our language proficiency?

TV broadcasts and films in another language are definitely good ways of improving an individual’s proficiency, especially in cases where exposure to the language in everyday life is limited. For children in particular, the combination of spoken words with visuals may increase interest in what is being said. For viewers who can read, subtitles either in their best language or in the language of the broadcast can greatly facilitate the learning of both structures and vocabulary. Unfortunately, TV channels in French and other widespread languages tend to use dubbing rather than subtitling. Any move in the direction of more subtitling on Belgium’s French-language channels would be welcome, including for example for interviews conducted in English or Dutch. Obviously, however, watching films and other broadcasts contributes mostly to the development of people’s passive competence and is no substitute for active practice. Over the past few decades, the internet has gradually become an easily accessible means for encountering and practicing languages other than one’s mother tongue. The possibility of communicating with people all around the globe has multiplied the opportunities not only to read but also to speak and write other languages. Social networks and online message boards, in particular, require the internet user to actively participate in online conversation. If there is a will to use these unprecedented opportunities to communicate in languages other than one’s mother tongue rather than choosing the least effort, the internet creates a formidable tool for language learning.

6. Where can I find language courses in Brussels?

There is a great variety of opportunities for learning languages in Brussels, ranging from group lessons to individual tutoring, from daily to weekly courses. We have compiled a list of initiatives in Brussels that should help you find the formulas that best suit your needs. Head on to this page for the list! Updates and suggestions for additions are welcome at info@marnixplan.org.

7. Where in Brussels can I find places to practise the languages I want to learn?

If you already some knowledge of a language, conversation tables will help you practice it and thereby improve your proficiency. Other initiatives put you in contact with native speakers of various languages so that you can practice them in a natural environment. You can find a list of conversation groups and similar initiatives on this page. Updates and suggestions for additions are welcome at info@marnixplan.org.

The answers to the questions featuring under the five headings on our homepage express the convictions that underlie the Marnix Plan. Some of them are universally shared. Others are controversial. Well-documented objections are most welcome (at info@marnixplan.com) and could lead us to revise our views. The success of the Marnix Plan depends on its being firmly rooted in a lucid analysis of Brussels and the world as they are, of the opportunities they offer to our hopes but also of the obstacles they put in their way.

We are particularly grateful to Hugo Baetens Beardsmore, Aafke Buyl, Manon Buysse, Nicole Bya, Grégor Chapelle, Bastien De Clercq, Rudolf De Smet, Dany Etienne, Rudi Janssens, Kari Kivinen, Johan Leman, Silvia Lucchini, Jessica Mathy, Françoise Pissart, Hannelore Simoens, Marianne van de Graaff for extremely useful material and/or feedback, to Jolien De Paepe and Diederik Vandendriessche for the Dutch translation of the original English version, and to Sophie Dehareng and Amélie Lelangue for its translation into French.

The responsibility for the current formulation, however, is solely ours.

Alex Housen, Anna Sole-Mena, Philippe Van Parijs,
coordinators of the Marnix Plan.