Multilingualism: How Language Can Help Us to Maintain Our Roots

When we moved to the Bay Area with our 10 month-old son, there was a burning question that we kept asking ourselves. What language would I want to teach him? Do we start with Indonesian first as it is his parents’ mother tongue? Or do we start with English? Will multilingualism confuse him? These questions kept going around and around in my head so we decided to teach him both. We read to him a lot and since most of the books we read were in English, the first few words he learnt were in English. He had more exposure towards the English language than Indonesian. We didn’t think this was a serious problem until we took him for a vacation in Indonesia. His grandparents, who barely speak English, had to face a major communication lag since my son mostly understood English and very little Indonesian. We had to translate even the simplest words to keep the conversation going. I could almost see the disappointment on my parents’ faces for they could not communicate with their own grandson. It was then that we realized we made an error — which would become a serious one if an intervention was not made soon. Multilingualism was the answer.

Multilingualism - Globe shows, Indonesia, Australia etc

We began to widen his exposure towards Indonesian by speaking Indonesian to him more often. At first, I thought it was going to be an information overload for him. Until one day, I discovered that he could give me a synonym of some English words. If he could give me more than one word to describe something, surely he has the ability to do it in more than one language! We started to teach him Indonesian more systematically. I reopened his picture books and taught him all the names of the animals again. But this time, in two languages. Soon enough, I began to describe everything we saw in both languages. First in English, and then in Indonesian. And when I want to emphasize a new word, I always say it in a different tone, yet constant. (It’s that tone that is always used in a PA system when they say ‘Attention’.) For example:

Me: Look at the sky. There’s a rainbow!

      Lihat di langit, ada pelangi!

      ‘Rainbow’. ‘Pelangi’.

At first, my son only gave me a blank stare. Maybe he was trying to find out what I was trying to do. I was worried at first whether this was too much for him. But we kept the routine constant, and the more repetition we had, the more he understood that one thing can be described by two words, or even more.

Soon enough, his vocabulary in Indonesian grew. He’s able to deliver his intention in both English and Indonesian. He’s able to hold a simple conversation with his grandparents in Indonesian, and he is teaching them a little bit of English here and there to bridge the gap. This allows him and his grandparents to have more effective communication and some sense of belonging.

My son is still mixing words between the two languages when he wants to describe something. Some multilingualism myths describe this as a confusion in language grasp. But recent studies prove that bilingualism, or even multilingualism, reorganizes the brain networks and tends to result in better cognitive performance throughout the speakers lifetime.


Recently, some of my Indonesian expat friends have shared links which discuss the growing trend in Indonesia for parents to teach their children solely in English. Get this, they are Indonesian parents, their kids being Indonesians, and they live in Indonesia; yet, they don’t allow their kids to speak and learn Indonesian, so as not to interfere with their learning of English. Being able to speak English fluently does give one an advantage in the increasingly global world we live in today. Yet, how are they going to be able to communicate with the locals, who also happen to be their fellow countrymen, if they can’t even speak their mother tongue? Also, why do they need to force kids to be monolinguals?

I realize that I don’t want to do the same thing. Children have such a vast potential and the brain capacity to learn more than one language. Besides, language is the window to civilizations. The more languages we can master, the more we can relate with people from different cultural backgrounds. It is good to expose children to many languages and give them the opportunity to become multilingual. One in five people in the US is bilingual, and what diverse cultures we have here in the Bay Area! I even see people hiring a Chinese nanny for their kids just so that they are exposed to Mandarin, and none of the parents are remotely Chinese.

Why? Well…Because, why not? Multilingualism for all!

Sometimes you will still encounter language problems, even if you speak English:

About Gita A

I have spent one third of my life away from home. I was born and grew up in Solo, Indonesia. After high school, I took my business degree in Nanyang Technological University in Singapore where I met my husband. Eight years later, we moved to the Bay Area when my husband was offered a position at Google. Moving to the other side of the world was not an easy task. Struggle was of course a part of it, and I have my ups and downs. Slowly but sure I find new friends along the way and life is getting more colourful each day. I know that my story is not unique. I’m glad to join the LITB team and I hope that our stories can help those who find themselves a thousand miles away from home feel not alone. We are in this together; and we, as a community, can grow stronger. Welcome to the Bay Area!

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