The Guardian

The joys and benefits of bilingualism | Tobias Jones

More than half the world’s population is now bilingual. Now thought to encourage flexibility of mind and empathy, bilingualism is also transforming societies
Tobias, Emma, Benedetta, Francesca and Leo Jones now live in Parma. Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer

Everyone knows that it’s moving and melancholic to watch your children change over the years. But to hear them alter their language, over the course of a few weeks and months, is almost surreal. It’s as if the precious beings you thought you knew are completely different and the experience is both intriguing and unsettling. 

Our children were 12, 10 and seven when we moved from Somerset to their mother’s country, Italy, last summer. Until then, they had always lived in England and their English was what you would expect: the odd spelling mistake, but otherwise fluent and full of pre-teen playground slang. 

Now, in Parma, barely a day goes by when they don’t inadvertently say something odd: “Mum, I’m eshing [going out]”; “Can we eat pesh? [fish]”; “I’ve scritten [written] to Grandpa”; “Can you accorten [shorten] my trousers?”; “Have you chiused [closed] the door?”; “Shut up, I’m parling [talking]”; “I’ve strapped [ripped] the page”. Every time it happens we laugh about our private pidgin, called – take your pick – “Engaliano” or “Italish”. But behind the laughter is mild astonishment at the speed at which children can overlay and overlap languages.

Sometimes, they’re not inventing words, but using the English ones in an Italian way: “I have been advantaged,” Benedetta said a few weeks ago, meaning: “I’ve been fortunate”. “I lost the bus,” Emma said, implying, of course, “I missed it”. “She’s an insupportable person” is an Italish way of saying: “I can’t put up with her”. 

Their pronunciation is changing, too: Leo no longer says “flash” (his televisual obsession) but, like his schoolmates, “flesh”; he doesn’t talk about “plum cakes”, that mass-produced Italian snack, but “plume cegs”. All their hand gestures are Italian (bouncing the fingertips, all together, towards the chest to say: “Dad, you’re talking nonsense”), and, inevitably, they’re trying out

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