Baroudeur: A hair-raising adventure in the Italian Alps
Cordon-Bleu: From Winemaker to Top Chef

Polyglotte: Is learning a second language risky? (A French woman's warning)

Jean-Marc Lake Garda Italy
"Salvataggio"--looking at the foreign word in this picture, can you grasp its meaning? It reminds me of "salvation" and, though I don't speak Italian, my guess is this is a rescue craft. Read on for more thoughts about words and language learning. (Photo of Jean-Marc on the shore of Lake Garda, in Northern Italy.)

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    : polyglot, multilingual, someone who speaks more than one language

A DAY IN A FRENCH LIFE by Kristi Espinasse

"Bilingualism = Risky Business?"

When our children were little and just beginning to communicate, an elder in the village of St. Maximin came to have a word with me. "Il ne faut pas parler les deux langues à vos enfants!" You mustn't speak both languages to your children!

Abasourdie, I automatically nodded in respect for my neighbor's wisdom, but secretly I had no clue what sort of threat bilingualism posed to my equally speechless offspring. Max was just beginning to babble his own name: "Affime!" he declared (this was as close to "Maxime" as he could get). It tickled my heart to hear my children's first words, in any language, including the universal tongue that is "baby talk." As his Anglophone mother and sole English teacher, was I to respond only in French (here in France)? I like to think my voisine was either misinformed or superstitious, but there was a gnawing doubt that her warning about le polyglottisme contained a grain of truth. After all, my son didn't speak as soon as the other toddlers at la crèche

With time, the dual languages sorted themselves out in Max's growing cerveau, and once our son began talking he never stopped, in French or English. Don't tell my neighbor but Max went on to become trilingual, learning Spanish and studying in Mexico, where his grandmother Jules lived at the time. Now Jules lives here in France and, though she doesn't speak Spanish or French, she has no problem communicating with the locals in either country when she speaks with her heart and her hands.

I gesture a lot, too. Jean-Marc often teases me for it, mimicking me as I "speak." 
"Ah. Bon, Vraiment? C'est comme ça?" He'll say, swirling his arms all over the place. 
I do all those hand moves when I speak to get my point across when my family seems distracted or distant.

But all my hand gesturing didn't translate to much on our recent trip to Italy, The Land of Gesticulation. And there I'd thought my French would surely help me to understand Italian, thanks to their shared Latin roots. Instead, I stared helplessly at the menus and the signs, and the instructions on the box of flu medicine I purchased.

Finally, Jean-Marc admitted he didn't understand much Italian either. Maybe we should sign up for Duolingo? he suggested. (This is not an ad and I have no affiliation with the company. But, for his  daily efforts, my Dad is a platinum member and he's inspired all of us to join--or at least to think about it...) This brings back memories of the elder's warning, years ago. Will learning a third language be somehow detrimental? Will it confuse me or cause me to make mistakes in both languages? I'm embarrassed to admit my reservations, especially given the language-learning theme of this blog

Reservations aside, if you want to know my personal feelings about learning another language, the following quote by Frank Smith expresses them in all their polyglot glory: 

One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way. Une langue vous place dans un corridor pour la vie. Deux langues ouvrent chaque porte sur le chemin. Una lingua ti mette in un corridoio per la vita. Due lingue aprono ogni porta lungo la strada.

Just imagine where three languages would take you! Down a corridor, through several doors, and into the hearts and souls of some fascinating people.



Do you have particular concerns or reservations about learning a language? Let me know here in the comments and GRAZIE MILLE for reading today.

Jean-Marc in Bergamo
While I understood the word "salvataggio" in our opening photo, "pasticceria" doesn't call forth any associations in my brain. My guess is it's connected to pasta? (I now see it means "pastries" hinted in the word's prefix!)


Click here to listen to Jean-Marc and Kristi pronounce the following words

le/la polyglotte = multilingual person
le voisin, la voisine = the neighbor
abasourdi(e) =
stunned, taken aback
la crèche = day care, child care center
le cerveau
= brain
Ah. Bon, Vraiment?
= Oh, really. Truly?
C'est comme ça? = Is that how it is?
grazie mille = a thousand thanks (in Italian)
amicalement = yours

Doorstep in Bergamo Italy
"La Drogheria"--does the word evoke its correct meaning for you? We bought a few snacks in here, after being wooed by the colorful doorstep.

Kristi and Jean-Marc in Bergamo Italy
Me and Jean-Marc in Bergamo

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Mercally Italy church
Driving through Mercallo, Italy

Cinzano Italy river
On the road near Cinzano....

Wheat fields near Cinzano
Rolling past wheat fields in our RV

Bordigherra restaurant Amarea
This refreshing break came on our last day in Italy. Jean-Marc found a beach with parasols and chaises-longues. After he struggled to park our camping car in Bordigherra, he was rewarded with a cool dip in the sea and chilled glass of rosé.

Bordigherra restaurant Amarea

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Multiligualism rocks! :-) And so does your blog.

Kristin Espinasse

Aw, merci beaucoup, Rina 😍


Your voisine was as wrong as she could be (also nosy and pushy). Studies have shown that learning two languages actually helps children's brains develop. And just looking at all the polyglots in Europe (like Max), where different tongues are in near proximity, tells you that knowing three or more are fine.

I'm sorry you were traveling while sick! Hope you're A-OK now.


Hi Kristi,
I remember going to language classes when we lived in Brussels. I thought I would learn both French and Dutch at the same time and took the metro to the US Embassy twice a week. The teachers had different teaching styles. The Flemish instructor just had us read the newspapers out loud and the French teacher was more by the book. I think I should have focused on one language. I ended up learning more French from our neighbors whose children were the same age as ours. I think I learned by just living in the community and having to learn the language to live day to day. It's so different just being a tourist and actually living in a country.
What's funny is years later on a river cruise in Provence, the Belgian cruise director was giving a talk to those who wanted to learn a few French phrases. He asked for people to yell out numbers in French and when he yelled out 90, I said "nonante" and he started laughing because it's really a Belgian way to say the number 90. LOL


When my bi-lingual French-English daughter was first introduced to her American grandmother, Grandma expressed concern about confusing the toddler with two languages. But Mom!, I answered..... You and your sisters are always throwing in words in 2 languages when you get together. You're "first generation" Americans and you all spoke one language at home, and another in school. Mom froze, thought about it, registered astonishment, and said Omigod you're right! I never even thought about it, it came so naturally. I....I'm...I'm.... bi-lingual! How about that!
That stopped her negative bi-lingualism comments!


Languages are very cool ! Yes to being a polyglotte :-)


Our dear Kristi,
Your wonderful blog today, was, comme d'habitude(!), inspiring and absolute food for thought.I especially loved the pictures-- most of all, the beautiful one of you and Jean Marc!!
In the world I grew up in( admittedly long ago now) bilingualism( or more) was considered an attribute-- not only for excellent brain stimulus and education, but also for the ability to get along with others in the world, and even possibly help in gaining --and keeping--one's chosen profession.
Without even mentioning, a whole lot of fun!!
To this day, we still wholeheartedly embrace this idea!
Perhaps your neighbor was fearful that by speaking something other than his mother tongue, little( at the time) Max would forget his heritage??
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to ponder on both past and present happy remembrances!
Blessings always to you b and yours, ma chere.

Carolyn R Chase

The more languages the better! They give some insight to the people who speak them, and provide an avenue of learning more about them and into some relationship however superficial (as it would be with a shopkeeper or Market vender). It shows you value the other person enough to make an effort to communicate with them.
My one caveat would be to beware of assuming words are cognates with your own language. Voitures d'Occasion seemed like they'd be fancy cars for big occasions like weddings or something, and not merely used cars.
And it provides good effort for the brain, which never hurts.
Learning them works much better and more easily the younger you are when you do it, and using them afterwards is invaluable to retaining them.


"Drogheria" (no "u") = grocery store. If you want what Americans call a drugstore and the British call a chemist, you need a "farmacia".

As Teresa said, your neighbor was wrong. Children's brains are like little sponges. They may mix up vocabulary and constructions* a bit when they are little, but they sort that out as they go along. (*I remember the little son of a friend, who was growing up in a French-English speaking household, saying about an equally little friend one day, "When I grow up I will marry myself with X."

Another point about bilingualism or multilingualism is that studies suggest people who speak two or more languages every day have lower incidence of dementia.

I think I am right that in order to be considered a polyglot one needs to speak several languages, not just two.

Ed Rush

This was one of your best columns ever, IMHO. I'm reminded of a couple I stayed with once: he was American, she was German, they lived in Nice, and neither knew much French. Their conversations were wildly trilingual. I'm American with basic knowledge of German and French, and it was so much fun talking with them!


My granddaughter grew up in an English speaking household, but her other grandma was not very fluent in English and spoke only Urdu to her. The Urdu grandma took care of the baby several days a week while my son and his Indian wife were at work. Like Kristi's son, our granddaughter was a late talker, but when she finally spoke, it was in Urdu to her grandma and in English to everyone else.
The classic joke about English only speakers asks: If a person speaks three languages is trilingual, and a person who speaks two languages is bilingual, what do you call a person who speaks only one language? -- Answer: American


P.S. Duolingo -- there are FAR, FAR better free and paid language learning platforms out there that will teach you more and better, with the added bonus of not subjecting you to cartoons and other things best suited to five-year-olds.

I do speak Italian, but I played with Duolingo Italian a bit to see what it was like when a few people sang its praises. I found errors in the Italian and awkward sentences that no one would ever say.

If you do use Duolingo -- assuming you can tolerate that green owl hopping up and down! -- you will need other resources to actually learn Italian in any useful way.

I have looked at a lot of online resources to help friends find good Italian learning sites. Check out It has paid courses, but there are a lot of free videos, especially for beginners on YouTube (search YouTube on "Italy Made Easy"). I have no affiliation with the site -- it's just a good one I came across.

Karen in Northport, NY

I taught 6 and 7 year olds in a Spanish/English bilingual program many years ago. The only drawback I saw was for children that learned more slowly, combining two languages with curriculum content could be overwhelming. But many children just tuned in and got it. Maybe a bit slower at standardized tests than in monolingual classes but then they were fluent bilinguals.
After 70+ years of full on NY US English, I think there are nuances and subtleties to local language that my ESL friends and coworkers didn't hear. And for me the subtleties are lost in Spanish and French. But, oh my, turning the sound without meaning flow of a language you don't know into communication is just the best. I always love building the bridges. My respect to true bi- and multi- linguals. At this point I can speak Spanish like a 6 year old and I can read French a bit (thanks FWAD mostly, but a bit from Agaguk and the Petite Larousse during my struggles in Montreal '67.)

Cathy L - So Calif

What a wonderful Frank Sinatra quote about language. I am going to use that in the future! Thank you. Merci.

Norman Silbert

Bonjour Kristin
Your instincts about the Italian word in your photograph were spot on. It means "rescue". Je te souhaite une tres bonne journée. Bella giornata a tutti.


Being Australian (but of Chinese background), I lament that Australia is so far from the rest of the world that very few people are truly bi-lingual here. My (adult) children have no Chinese language other than a few words and I am trying to expand my limited vocabulary with Duolingo!

I had great French teacher in high school (she sounded like a native speaker) so when I left high school, I could understand and speak a fair bit. Unfortunately, opportunities for speaking practice have been few and far between (our neighbours back then were Italian) so malheureusement, j'ai oublie beaucoup :(

I agree that we would have many more opportunities to connect with fascinating people but for my husband, the lack of a second language means that his communication with his own mother has limits because when his parents migrated (50+ years ago), they were told to speak to the children only in English. I don't know whether it was for fear of confusing the children or if it was something akin to racism. Now we know better.

At least the world has the universal language of music to fall back on - a blessing from our Creator God because we are made in His image and therefore, we too can create.


I am an older lady, 60+, and have been learning languages all my life. I started learning Italian some 12 years ago after meeting several Italians on Facebook. Then when my daughter moved to Germany, I started learning German. I studied French in high school, so I sometimes brush up on French. The thing about learning languages later in life is that it is very good for one's brain. It helps to form new nerve endings, similar, but not the same as, little ones' brains. Research has shown that when you learn something new that causes you to struggle to learn, it causes those nerve endings to grow. So, the more the merrier! I found Italian somewhat easier as I had a foundation in French. I would like to learn Spanish, as the Italian helps with that.

Kathy Heckathorn

I took Spanish in second through fifth grade, a required course in SoCal in the early 60s. Then I took four years of French in high school, my choice. Spanish might have been the better choice, since 51% of the population in my area speaks Spanish. But I loved the beautiful sound of French. Now, when I visit another country and try to speak the language, I start out in that country's language, but end up in the opposite one. Doesn't matter if I start in Spanish and end in French, or vice versa. It always ends up the same. Now that I'm in my seventies, I'm on level four of a Spanish audio program, and it's starting to sway the balance. Learning a foreign language also has the benefit of helping me better understand English. What a wonderful ride I've had. Keep up your good work. I adore your blog.

Karla Ober

Great post, Kristi!
As an English professor for 30 years who specialized in Language Acquisition , I can tell you that you did everything just right. The only possible thing you could have done that might have helped a bit would have been to speak ONLY English to your children until they were about 5 years old, explaining only that these were Mommy's words. AND have your husband speak to them ONLY in French, likewise explaining that these were Daddy's words until the same age. When they reached the age of 5 or so, simply explain further that Mommy's words are called "English" and Daddy's words are called French! This system practically guarantees that the children will not be confused, and will become completely bilingual!

Kristin Espinasse

Thank you very much, Passante. Very helpful! And thanks for the spelling correction in your previous note. Off to fix it now.

Sue J.

Great quote!


Hi Kristi
I’m just catching up on the latest posts. I am all for multilingualism. I’m a native English speaker but international travel from a very young age created a fascination with other languages. I learned some Spanish and Tagalog in the Philippines. In high school I studied German for a year before moving to Japan where I learned basic Japanese. I took a French class in my last year of high school back in the US. In my thirties I studied French language and culture at l’université catholique de l’ouest in Angers. After living a few years in France I moved to Mexico where I learned Spanish. I’m living in France again, Yea! Whenever I go back and forth between France and Mexico it takes me a couple of weeks to stop using common words and phrases in the wrong language. Words such as avec/con or sans/sin pop out of my mouth. I usually just say je viens d’arriver de la Mexique or venia la semana pasada de la Francia. After a short time my brain (which is a marvelous organ) completely readjusts to my current location.

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