Do Third Cultre Kids tend to undervalue their linguistic abilities?

Perhaps one of the most useful life skills that a TCK has the privilege to acquire more easily than many, is fluency in more than one language. Children who learn languages at an early age and use them on a day to day basis develop an ability to be at ease with languages, different from those who learn a new language in their teenage or adult years.

The benefits go beyond daily communication.  Research suggests that learning different languages at an early stage can improve thinking skills and even help children do well academically. A natural language proficiency can also present international career opportunities.

Learning a new language early on also enables the TCK to pick up on important nuances of language, allowing them to understand better how the people of that culture think and relate to each other. An adult learning a new language will invariably translate word for word, instead of having a deeper connection to what the word may mean in a specific context.

A common example expressed by many TCKs with African experiences is the use of the word ‘sorry’.  For example, if you fall over and you happen to be in Kenya, your African colleagues would say ‘I am sorry’, even though it is not their fault. Sorry here is used in an empathetic and sympathetic way, they are sorry for the pain or discomfort you may be feeling. In western countries sorry is used as an apology; you have done something wrong and you want to make amends. These are the deeper nuances of language which, in more extreme cases, can create real confusion.

On a note of caution, one should be mindful of the difference between ‘deep’ learning and ‘broad’ learning when it comes to language. Understanding, speaking, and thinking in a particular language are levels of proficiency that are often not fully considered. To be truly fluent in a language, so as to be able to think in it, is the goal. Speaking proficiency in a number of languages can sometimes cause confusion and a lack of precision in expression.

There is a recognised connection between learning, or being exposed, to a number of languages at an early age, and not being able to become fully proficient in the mother tongue – the language of family roots and history. This is most often seen in TCKs who come from non-English speaking countries and attend international schools where lessons are predominantly in English.

It is common for TCKs who attend boarding school and who do not return home for several months, to find themselves less fluent in their mother tongue, forgetting how to express ideas and emotions with sufficient definition. Over time this may limit the ability to form intimate relationships with family and friends back home.

‘Creative spelling’ is another symptom of being multi-lingual, it’s less serious but nevertheless very confusing. Even within the English language, it isn’t just TCKs who have difficulty in deciphering between the American and British differences in spelling certain words. This is nothing that a dictionary cannot resolve and teachers in international schools are well equipped to help with spelling variations.

Overall, most TCKs view their linguistic skills positively and the shared experience of learning another language in a faraway land in their early years, connects them. There are some pitfalls to being naturally multi-lingual, but perhaps the greatest problem is that TCKs don’t realise the tremendous value and opportunity that they have in being able to communicate literally across cultures.