'Languages are the greatest gift you can give your child'

One of the benefits of raising children in the UAE is the opportunity to expose them to an array of cultures and languages.

Saturday morning. 11am. The streets of Abu Dhabi might be relatively quiet, but Starbucks certainly is not. The enduring allure of this institution is enough to pull in the crowds; Europeans, Emiratis and other Arabs, Americans, Australians - the perfect microcosm of the 21st century's comprehensively international society. The air is abuzz with English, French, Arabic and German, among other voices, but there is one common denominator that is even stronger than the desire for that caffeine fix and those wickedly warming blueberry muffins; the fact that everybody here knows what it's like to live and interact in a multicultural country.

The past few decades have witnessed an explosive growth in the number of people choosing to travel, work and live overseas. Globalisation has given rise to a new breed of nomadic family - men, women and even children who appreciate the importance of communication, and who understand that language is often the key to successful relationships, both business and social. The UAE's credentials as a diverse, multilingual business base are far stronger than most corners of the world, and the advantages of being able to speak more than one language are not lost on its residents.

"As a working mother, being multilingual made it easier for me to get a good job," says one Abu Dhabi resident, Tamara Hamade, the office manager of SinoGulf Investments. "I'm not necessarily better than monolingual candidates, but it's not enough these days to just be good at your job; you need other life skills. At my company they love it that I can conduct my work in English, Arabic and French. My language skills helped me get the job."

This is hardly news. Virtually all of us were told as a child about the importance of learning a language. But today, as a prospective employee, if you speak only one, you might well be overlooked in favour of a candidate who is fluent in more. Charlotte Abbott, Dubai director of Hays, one of the biggest international recruitment companies, confirms this theory. "For companies with global operations, the ability to speak and transact with colleagues and customers in multiple locations across the globe will be a distinct advantage. If, for example, we consider applications for the MENA region, those candidates who have Arabic, French and English will be at a distinct advantage against someone only with English."

The fabric of today's society, therefore, is one where expat living is commonplace and languages and cultural understanding are increasingly becoming a necessity. This world trend has sparked an increase in the number of children who do or will find themselves in environments where they need more than one language — either for survival, or simply to make life considerably easier. And the UAE is the perfect place to harness a wide range of cultural and linguistic opportunities simply unavailable in less multinational locations.

Birgit A. Ertl is Director of one-of-a-kind multi-lingual pre-school The Children's Garden (TCG) in Dubai. A passionate advocate of the advantages of immersing children in multilingual environments from their earliest years, she explains: "TCG was launched in the UAE precisely because of the diversity of the residential population here. We wanted to match our multilingual, international curriculum with the kind of cosmopolitan clientele that could support it best and benefit from it most.

"With the right support, most children can easily learn three languages simultaneously and some can even manage up to seven. The trick is to make languages a priority right from the outset." Having lived and taught for over 20 years in various parts of the world, Ertl has a considerable bank of experience to support her theory. "Children are born ready to become multilingual. It's the environment that dictates the success of language acquisition. At TCG we do various things differently. Firstly, it's an immersion language programme so from the age of three, the languages of instruction are English/French or English/German. Fifty per cent of the time, the child will be taught in English, and the other 50 per cent in either French or German, with Arabic as an additional language. Secondly, we really focus on how to inspire children and stimulate their brains. For the best results, everything you do has to be age-appropriate."

For youngsters, 'age-appropriate' means being emotionally engaged in what they're doing - that is learning through having fun. Educational expert agree that early childhood is the most crucial time in a person's formative life. What children learn from the age of zero to seven becomes the building blocks for all their future learning. Dr Andrew Curran, consultant pediatric neurologist at Alder Hey Hospital in the UK, has distilled the hugely complex topic of how the brain learns best into one simple algorithm.

"If a child is in an environment where they are understood as an individual, then their self esteem will be improved, which will give them self confidence. If their self confidence is good, then they will feel emotionally engaged with that environment." Ertl embraces this notion: "A child's brain is like a sponge, ready and eager to absorb everything you feed it. During the first few years of life, children learn unconsciously, in the most natural way, largely through play. The learning process is uninhibited and instinctive. Properly supported, young children pick up language quickly and subconsciously; they aren't afraid of making mistakes."

TCG's forward-thinking philosophy has a large and growing band of supporters. Russian-born Yulia Kononova is married to an Italian. Their daughter, Helena, aged five, speaks Russian, French, Italian and English. Kononova believes that TCG's methods are just right, remembering how hard she found learning English as an older child. "My daughter is so lucky. She just goes to school and has a great day. They inspire the children by all means: music, art, sports, crafts, you name it; they follow and introduce the latest teaching techniques. They do it equally well in both languages, and this is how, towards the end of the TCG years, kids show such great results in academics and they've learnt languages without even realising it. It's so effortless."

The effort involved is what really differentiates learning a language as young child compared to as an adult, when it gets much harder. That said, learning another language at any age will always bring advantages; recent research from the US even suggests that being bilingual slows down the ageing process in the mind and can even delay the onset of Alzheimer's. "In today's rapidly globalizing world, there's no end to the benefits of multilingualism," says Dr Ahmad al Issa, associate professor of linguistics and interim head of the department of English at the American University, Sharjah. "Cultural competence is a must; for people to communicate with each other in this day and age, they must be culturally competent. Being multilingual allows people to be more open and accepting of the 'other' and this in turn leads to a more intercultural communication."

How do these theories fare in real life? "In my opinion, languages are the greatest gift you can give your child because they will open many doors for them in the future. Each language is a passport," states Italian expat Claudia Bergamini, mother of Diane, five, and Claire, four. "My children are still very young, but it's really amazing for a parent to hear them speaking several languages: at home they switch between French (to my husband), Italian (to myself) and also English (to their nanny). When they want to watch a cartoon, the question is: "Which language would you like to hear?" Same thing for reading a book. They are very lucky to begin their life in such a brilliant way."

Kononova agrees. "I think it's very beneficial for children to be raised in a multicultural environment like the UAE. They learn how to appreciate other people. They learn early on that we are all different and it is absolutely fine to be different: to come from a different country, to have a different skin colour, to speak a different language, to eat different food, wear different clothes, to sing different songs, to think differently. I really think that some adults should learn from our children how to be tolerant, understanding and considerate of others."

It's parents like these who choose a pre-school that does things differently from other early-childhood establishments. Ertl is aware of what forward thinking parents are looking for and what the next generation of education should deliver. "Being prepared for change is the most necessary tool for the next generation," she says. "Pre-schools need to concentrate on more than just ABC and one, two, three - as a child will learn this anyway. The emphasis should be more on the preparation of life skills and that includes language. If you speak one, two, three languages, it takes you places - you have totally different opportunities.

"Pioneering educators and progressive schools across the world are now recognizing that they need to introduce languages earlier because of the way young children learn and process information." But widespread implementation of forward-thinking curriculum trends will not happen overnight. In the UAE, one step in that direction has been the support given by Abu Dhabi Education Council to initiatives such as the publication of Noura's Garden, a multilingual book for five- to six-year-olds. Written by Katie Butterfield, translated by Khadijah Kudsi and illustrated by Ruth Burrows, these three Abu Dhabi mums were aware of just how many languages their own children and their peers could speak, and in their hunt for supporting resources, identified a gaping hole in the market that they knew they could fill.

"I would always read books in Arabic and my kids read books in English. I wished that there would be books in both languages. We all liked the idea. It's great to grow up in a multicultural environment because it teaches children respect and an understanding that their way of living is not the only right way." Step back into Starbucks for confirmation; the multicultural patrons reveal different ways of dressing, different preferences in food and even different reasons for being there. As for the way that languages can prepare us for this interconnected world, Ertl says: "With each language comes different traditions, histories, literature, music, food, sayings, ways of understanding and interpreting the world. Linguists will have a lot more understanding, tolerance, flexibility and creativity. And from that, everything else flows."

For Kononova, this means giving her child a real head start in life, even if learning more than one language means more of an effort to begin with: "In Russia we say, 'The higher you throw the bird, the higher it flies'." How many languages can you say that in?