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THE GIFT OF LANGUAGE

Living abroad and learning the language of the country are gifts that some brave parents give their children. Living in another country is an experience that will stay with children throughout their lifetime but can full immersion in a culture and a community only really be achieved if children learn to speak the language of the country?

Our debate at the beginning of this edition addressed the issue of the learning of languages for very young children with research and statistics showing that children who are bilingual or multilingual also often show improved abilities in other parts of their lives.

“BRINGING UP THE CHILDREN SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE OF THE COUNTRY WAS A CONSCIOUS DECISION. I FELT VERY STRONGLY THAT THERE WAS NO NEED FOR ANYONE HELPING WITH THE CHILDREN TO SPEAK IN ENGLISH”


The research papers are all very well but the real inspiration comes from families who have taken this brave step. The Speir family is just one such family. Currently living in Prague in the Czech Republic, they have brought up three daughters – Daisy, Bella and Scarlett now aged 6,4 and 2, to be able to converse in three languages, English, Czech and Polish. All three of their daughters were born in Eastern Europe, their eldest two in Prague and their youngest in Poland when the family relocated for a period of time.

Home life


Unlike many families living abroad who ask their nannies and childminders to speak to the children in English, Elizabeth and Guy made the brave decision to employ Czech or Polish nannies and encourage the children to converse with them in their nannies’ mother tongue. They believe that this is far more valuable for the children if they hear the languages being spoken by fluent speakers rather than allowing the children and nannies to talk together in (often broken) English.

Elizabeth says: “Bringing up the children speaking the language of the country was a conscious decision. I felt very strongly that there was no need for anyone helping with the children to speak in English. So, we have a rule in the house that they are always spoken to in Czech and Polish. The girls are like sponges, they just absorb the language and it is a huge advantage hearing the languages spoken at home by their nanny.” As she was born in Poland and has had a Polish nanny, their youngest daughter, Scarlett is completely fluent in the language.

“If I try and speak Polish to them they will always answer in English. They obviously know that it is not natural”


The older girls are good at both languages although they are not a 100% fluent in Polish. They are also very comfortable with the interchanging of languages: “As they were born here, it has been part of their lives from the very beginning and they accept it because it’s what they’re used to!”

Recent studies have suggested that parents should only speak to their children in their mother tongue. Elizabeth has found this in her experience too: “Whilst Polish is predominantly spoken between the children and our nanny, if I try and speak Polish to them they will always answer in English. They obviously know that it is not natural.”

At the same time, she has noticed that the children don’t get muddled between the languages, nor do they seem embarrassed ever: “Children are so adaptable and our girls have never shown any signs of feeling overwhelmed by it all.”

School life


Elizabeth explains that her eldest two girls first started nursery in a small, international school in Poland. Around 80% of the children were Polish, having been sent by their parents to learn English but whilst the school was an English language school, the playground chat was always Polish.

Now they are at a British school in Prague, where the nationalities of the children are far more diverse and the school much larger.

Though there are a number of Czech pupils or children who have one parent of Czech nationality, there are also many children from the US, UK, Scandinavia and all around Europe.

The school follows a British curriculum but in such a multicultural community most of the children’s friends all speak a second language, if not several. Daisy also now has a Czech lesson once a week.

The girls are still young and whilst it is early days for them in nursery and school, they are learning quickly and have made real progress over the last year that they have been in Prague:

'Whether the acquisition of the various languages has anything to do with this is probably too early to tell.”

Life experiences


Of their time spent so far in Eastern Europe, Elizabeth believes that this is the right time for them as a family to be living abroad: “This is the best place for us to be at the moment because we have the best of both worlds. It’s not always easy and I couldn’t do it forever but for now it’s great!”

This experience is seen by Elizabeth and Guy as a gift that they are able to give their children both in terms of culture, languages and life experience that they can call on and benefit hugely from as they grow up.

"AS THEY WERE BORN HERE, IT HAS BEEN PART OF THEIR LIVES FROM THE VERY BEGINNING AND THEY ACCEPT IT BECAUSE IT'S WHAT THEY"RE USED TO!"


At some point, Elizabeth wants to return to the UK but only when the time is right for an easy transition for the girls into school here: “I don’t feel that we are missing out on not being in the UK. We have had huge opportunities to travel throughout Europe and there’s so much to do.”

These opportunities to travel caused them to buy a summer house four years ago in Slovenia, where they now spend many of the children’s holidays:

“Again this is a totally different culture and language for the girls to absorb and be part of.”

The Speir family’s experience certainly reinforces the belief of the experts we looked at in our earlier language debate that the gift of languages holds the key to cultural diversity and enriched education, and the earlier we start, the better!

“This is the best place for us to be at the moment because we have the best of both worlds”