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Every European citizen trilingual?

Leiden University linguist Lisa Cheng speaks two Chinese languages, as well as English and Dutch. She is a strong supporter of the European Commission's wish that every European citizen learns to speak several languages. ‘Speaking three languages is not that difficult.’

The intent is that everyone living within the EU will eventually speak two languages in addition to their mother tongue. That is the European Commission’s linguistic ideal, and it hopes to bring this closer to reality by drawing on insights from AThEME, Advancing the European Multilingual Experience. This EU-funded research project consists of four research themes: regional languages, languages from the country of origin, the cognitive aspects of multilingualism, and communicative limitations (such as dyslexia, stuttering and aphasia).

AThEME is aimed at policy makers, health and education professionals and is led by linguist Lisa Cheng, Professor of General Linguistics, at Leiden University. Seventeen partner institutions in eight countries are participating. This five-year research programme comes to an end in the spring of 2019, and will result in five policy papers for the EU. Based on the first two, these are expected to be critical policy papers (the rest are still being worked on). That is because anyone who talks about multilingualism is not only talking about standard languages and regional languages, minorities and migrants, dialects and dyslexia, but also about judgements, assumptions and ignorance.

Before we go further here: Is it realistic to have every citizen trilingual? And do you really want that? ‘Yes,’ Lisa Cheng says emphatically.

She herself speaks two Chinese languages (and understands three) – Cantonese and Mandarin differ from each other more than Italian and Spanish’ –, English and Dutch. Cheng: ‘Speaking three languages is not that difficult. In secondary school in the Netherlands, children learn Dutch, English and French or German. You already have three right there.’ But they do not always keep it until the final exam: as a foreign language, only English is required at the upper levels of HAVO and VWO, and only at VWO is a second modern language required in addition to English (the grammar school pupils already have Greek or Latin).

Cheng can hardly believe it. ‘The Netherlands is so small! The Dutch must at least have a good mastery of English, but Germany is also so close. You can’t miss that opportunity, come on!’ She refers to EU commissioner Frans Timmermans, the ambassador of multilingualism: besides Dutch, he speaks English, German, French, Italian and Russian, plus his own regional language of Limburg. This is impressive and comes in handy in his position, but what is the added value of bilingualism or multilingualism for ordinary citizens?

Brain training

‘Speaking multiple languages ​​is good for your brain,’ says Cheng. ‘If you are multilingual, you build up a so-called ‘cognitive reserve’. By constantly changing tasks, you train your brain, as it were.’ The sensitivity to language is greater among multilingual people, she knows: ‘AThEME researchers had bilingual children listen to two sentences in a language that was unknown to them. Those sentences sounded almost the same, but the prosodic characteristics – rhythm, stress, intonation and meaning – differed. Just like children who had been trained musically at a young age, bilingual children also picked up on those differences; monolingual children don’t have this ability.’

Research conducted by AThEME showed that dyslexic children who learn a foreign language at secondary school develop more sensitivity to language than monolingual dyslexic children. Cheng: 'While in current practice dyslexic children are discouraged from learning additional languages. This does indeed cost them extra effort and you have to give them extra time to achieve that. But in the end, they understand the morphological rules (the word structure) of a language better than monolingual children with dyslexia. In fact, if things get really complicated, dyslexic children do even better than children without dyslexia.’

Around six thousand languages are spoken in nearly two hundred countries around the world. Around eighty percent of the world's population speaks more than one language. In the Netherlands, nearly half of all children speak more than one language every day.

Cheng considers minority languages, regional languages and even dialects all as languages. In fact, as equivalent languages. The funder of her research project thinks otherwise. In the policy paper to the EU on regional minority languages, AThEME denounces the ‘often indifferent and even negative’ attitude of policymakers to the more than 60 minority languages in the EU. The EU is in favour of multilingualism, but assigns a high status to the standard languages. Frisian may have the status of the secondary national language in the Netherlands, which does not mean that the EU is satisfied if we all manage Dutch, Frisian and English. Dutch, English and German are better.

Minority languages

This is at odds with what the researchers of AThEME deem important and sensible. In their policy letter, they encourage the EU to preserve and promote regional minority languages. A minority language allows children to become multilingual in a natural way. It is commonly believed that children are better off learning one language very well – the standard language – but, Cheng says, that is very good for their language development when children speak a different language at home. If the EU is truly devoted to having multilingual citizens, it should promote the knowledge and practice of bilingualism that already exists through regional minority languages, it says in the letter.

Dutch children whose parents speak a different language at home can learn Dutch just as well as children with two Dutch-speaking parents. However, a crucial condition must be met: ‘The parents must have a good command of the foreign language spoken at home and speak it often,’ Cheng intones. ‘Because that is the key to good language development for children.’ You only learn a second language if you master the first language well.

Not too early

That does not mean that it is always a good idea to start bilingual education too early. Cheng: ‘Teaching a second language (i.e. English) at school or at the crèche to children who only speak Dutch at home at school, makes very little sense. It can even have a negative effect on their language development.’ She is very worried about the English offered at daycare centres and to toddlers: ‘That should really be done by native speakers, otherwise those children could learn things completely wrong.’

But the main reason why such early bilingual education does not make sense is the age of these children. They are simply too young to learn a second language from scratch. ‘As a rule, children do not sufficiently master their own mother tongue until around the age of eight, and they have developed the meta-linguistic skills needed to learn a different language.’ These skills help them to recognise the structure of the language at a subconscious level. It is precisely for this reason that refugee children in grades 7 or 8 often master Dutch very quickly.


Multilingualism not only has cognitive value. It also promotes contact and reduces fear of ‘the other’, Cheng believes. In other words: multilingualism promotes integration. Cheng: ‘If Dutch people do not want to learn German, let them learn Turkish for example, to be able to talk to people in their own neighbourhood. When they enter a Turkish store, they do not feel uncomfortable when Turkish is spoken around them. People soon think that you have something to hide when you speak to others in another language, or that you are making fun of them. If you can understand what is being said, you will soon hear that the conversation is about everyday topics.’ 

This article appeared previously in Leidraad, the alumni magazine of Leiden University. The complete journal can be read online.

Text: Malou van Hintum

About Lisa Cheng

Lisa Cheng (1962) is Professor of General Linguistics at Leiden University and one of the founders of the Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition. She graduated in 1991 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and conducts comparative syntactic research into various Chinese and Bantu languages. Cheng is the scientific coordinator of the research project AThEME.

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