Do I have a polite or an impolite multilingual child?

The linguistic aspects of culture have always been valued in foreign language education, but recently sociocultural elements have been gaining more and more importance.

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The linguistic aspects of culture have always been valued in foreign language education, but recently sociocultural elements have been gaining more and more importance.

Without them, even if children a good vocabulary and solid grammatical knowledge, strange or unexpected things can occur in their everyday language use. Thus, a multilingual child needs to aspire not only to the acquisition of several languages ​​at the highest possible level, but also to know and correctly use the interactive and behavioural strategies that correspond to each language - that is to say, to feel at home with each one.

While for monolingual people, language and its sociocultural context create an organic unity, multilinguals have a more complex and dynamic system. In addition, although we can learn a language from just one person, to learn a language effectively it is essential to assimilate the sociocultural characteristics of a community, observing and practicing the interactions between individuals of the group. The amount of input, as is typical in learning processes, is key. The multilingual child, even though he is learning several languages, will feel more familiar with those sociocultural elements with which he has had more contact. In this way, it can happen, for example, that:

Children who come from a culture where it is customary to speak loudly, returning to a country whose language they dominate, but where conversations are quieter, continue to speak more loudly than usual there and use more striking gestures.

Or that coming from a more indirect culture, when addressing an older person they do so using informal instead of formal pronouns.

The higher the language level reached by the child, the less forgiving the environment is of a child’s ignorance of socio-cultural norms. On the other hand, if they speak with a strong accent, make grammatical mistakes or find it difficult to find words, the environment tends to act more forgivingly.

But what can we do to avoid conflict? We should draw the child's attention to what they should avoid doing in that place by explaining what the cultural norms are there. Such occasions offer a good opportunity to talk about the differences between cultures; this knowledge is essential to achieve good communication. In many cases we stumble upon unspoken rules. We tend to use the term “well-mannered” if someone knows these rules well and behaves accordingly. However, being polite in one culture does not necessarily mean being well-mannered in another, and may even be rude.

The best thing would be for our multilingual child to act in each environment according to local expectations, that is to say, it is important that your child has an awareness of cultural norms like using formal pronouns, gesturing and speaking loudly. This will mean that they have high intercultural competence. This can only be achieved through a conscious learning process, turning implicit norms into explicit, that is to say, speaking of them. In short, it is not only the quantity of the input that counts but also the quality.