BBC 2024-03-11 16:01:38

Kate photo: Princess of Wales says she edited Mother’s Day picture recalled by agencies

The Princess of Wales has apologised “for any confusion” after she said she edited a Mother’s Day photograph of her and her children.

Her statement was posted on Kensington Palace social media after five agencies retracted it over editing concerns.

“Like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing,” Catherine said.

The image, taken by the Prince of Wales, was the first of Catherine to be released since her surgery in January.

PA, Getty Images, AFP, Associated Press (AP) and Reuters had removed the image. AP noted an “inconsistency in alignment of Princess Charlotte’s left hand”.

In her statement on X, formerly Twitter, Catherine said: “I wanted to express my apologies for any confusion the family photograph we shared yesterday caused. I hope everyone celebrating had a very happy Mother’s Day. C.”

The apology, posted to social media, comes from the official account of the Prince and Princess of Wales, but it has the personal sign off of “C”, for Catherine.

She is taking responsibility for the changes to the photograph, rather than her husband Prince William, who took the photo, or any of the wider team around the royal couple.

According to royal sources, there were “minor adjustments” made by the Princess of Wales to the picture that was then posted online by Kensington Palace.

Kensington Palace said it would not be reissuing the original unedited photograph of Catherine and her children.

We know the photograph was edited, but some basic information about the image remains unknown – such as when exactly it was taken, what was changed or whether it was a composite of a number of pictures.

The photograph shows the princess sitting down, surrounded by Princess Charlotte, Prince Louis and Prince George, the latter wrapping his arms around her.

It was the first official photo of the Princess of Wales since her abdominal surgery two months ago. Since then she has stayed out of the public eye.

The image was posted with a message from Catherine which said: “Thank you for your kind wishes and continued support over the last two months.

“Wishing everyone a Happy Mother’s Day.”

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The photo was only intended as an “amateur, family photograph” released to mark Mother’s Day, say royal sources.

The implication is that this was not a piece of professional manipulation, but some tidying up of a picture capturing a family moment.

Except that this was not just a personal picture, it was going to be shared with the world, against a background in which it would inevitably be seen as an attempt to stop the speculation and conspiracy theories about Catherine, as she recovers from an operation.

‘Raising more questions’

Instead of providing an answer to such rumours it inadvertently ended up raising more questions.

The photo will also lead to discussions about how media outlets should use images or social media clips which are produced without any independent journalists being involved.

Although most public royal events will have professional photographers and press representatives, this was seen as a private moment, captured by the family themselves, as the princess recovers.

The only previous photo of the princess since her operation was a paparazzi shot, which was not used by UK news organisations because of concerns about breaches of privacy.

There have been previous examples of Kensington Palace putting out video footage without any external journalists being present, including a visit by the Princess of Wales to a “baby bank” helping disadvantaged families.

The Mother’s Day image was included on the front pages of several national newspapers and websites, including BBC News, and used on TV news bulletins – again including the BBC.

In order to use the new photo as quickly as possible, the BBC took the one used by Kensington Palace on their social media accounts.

Five photo agencies retracted the image over concerns it had been “manipulated”. The Associated Press issued a “kill notification” – an industry term used to make a retraction – late on Sunday, saying: “At closer inspection it appears that the source has manipulated the image. No replacement photo will be sent.”

Reuters said it too had withdrawn the image “following a post-publication review” and AFP also issued a “mandatory kill notice”.

Getty Images became the fourth organisation to retract the photograph. And PA said later on Monday it too had retracted the image, based on there being no clarification from Kensington Palace.

Most news organisations follow their own strict guidelines on the use of manipulated photographs, only using them when accompanied by an explanation that the image has been changed from the original.

News agencies, such as AP, therefore make a commitment to their clients that their photos are accurate and not digitally manipulated.

AP’s rules only allow “minor adjustments” in certain circumstances, including cropping and toning and colour adjustments, as well as the removal of dust on camera sensors. It says changes in density, contrast, colour and saturation levels “that substantially alter the original scene” are not acceptable.

Later on Monday, the Princess of Wales was seen in public with William, as the pair left Windsor in a car.

Kensington Palace said the Prince of Wales was being driven to the Commonwealth Day service at London’s Westminster Abbey.

Catherine is not attending the service but is understood to have a private appointment.

A short while later, William was seen alongside Queen Camilla at the service celebrating the Commonwealth.

Some 56 countries make up the Commonwealth of Nations – this year marking its 75th anniversary – the majority of which are former British Empire territories of which the King is still head of state.

Charles did not attend the service, due to his treatment for an unspecified cancer, but he pre-recorded a video message that was played to the 2,000 guests.

Catherine, 42, spent 13 nights at the London Clinic, near Regent’s Park in central London, following the surgery.

Prince William came to see his wife during her stay and she was also visited by the King before he had his own treatment there.

The Palace has shared few details about her condition, which has garnered significant social media speculation, but has said it is not cancer-related.

The team supporting the princess as she recovers is small and limited to those closest to her.

At the time of her stay, the Palace said the princess wanted her personal medical information to remain private, adding that she wanted to “maintain as much normality for her children as possible”.

The Palace said it would only provide updates on her recovery when there was significant new information to share.

Oscars 2024: Oppenheimer sweeps awards as Cillian Murphy wins best actor

Cillian Murphy has become the first Irish-born winner of the best actor award, as Oppenheimer swept the Oscars.

The film dominated proceedings, winning best picture, best director for Christopher Nolan, and best supporting actor for Robert Downey Jr.

Murphy was named best leading actor for his acclaimed portrayal of theoretical physicist J Robert Oppenheimer.

The actor said he was “overwhelmed” to have won, adding: “I’m a very proud Irishman standing here tonight.”

He thanked Nolan and producer Emma Thomas for “the wildest, most exhilarating, most creatively satisfying journey you’ve taken me on”.

Murphy also paid tribute to “every single crew and cast member, you carried me through”.

He concluded: “We made a film about the man who created the atomic bomb, and for better or for worse, we are all living in Oppenheimer’s world, so I’d like to dedicate this to the peacemakers everywhere.”

The ceremony saw Oppenheimer win seven prizes overall, while Poor Things took four – including best actress for Emma Stone – and The Zone of Interest scored two.

Downey Jr won best supporting actor for his portrayal of US government official Lewis Strauss in Oppenheimer.

Accepting the award, the actor joked: “I’d like to thank my terrible childhood, and the Academy, in that order.

“I needed this job more than it needed me,” he continued. “I stand here before you a better man because of it.”

The star also paid tribute to his wife Susan Downey, who he said had found him as a “a snarling rescue pet”, adding that she “loved me back to life, that’s why I’m here”.

Downey Jr, best known for his run as Marvel’s Iron Man, has enjoyed a hugely successful Hollywood comeback after serious drug addiction issues more than two decades ago, which saw him serve a prison sentence after missing court-ordered drug tests.

He concluded his speech by telling the audience: “What we do is meaningful and what we decide to make is important.”

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Host Jimmy Kimmel joked the cast and crew were “getting Oppen-hammered at the bar”, such was the film’s success.

As he accepted his first ever best director Oscar, Nolan said: “Thank you to those who have been there for me, believed in me for my whole career.”

Addressing the Academy, he said: “Movies are just a little bit over 100 years old, we don’t know where this incredible journey is going from here, but to know that you think I’m a meaningful part of it means the world to me.”

A somewhat disorientated-looking Al Pacino appeared to forget to introduce the 10 nominees for best picture, before going straight to announcing Oppenheimer as the winner of the night’s top prize.

Accepting the prize, producer Emma Thomas said: “I think any of us who make movies dream of this moment. But it seemed so unlikely that it would ever actually happen.”

Oppenheimer also won best editing, original score and cinematography. However, it lost several other technical categories, denying it a record-breaking number of wins.

Instead, the unusual steampunk drama Poor Things won best production design, costume design, make-up and hairstyling, as well as best actress for Emma Stone.

The Yorgos Lanthimos film follows an infant whose brain has been implanted into the body of an adult woman, who then goes on an adventure of discovery across the world.

“This is really overwhelming,” Stone said in her speech. “I am so deeply honoured to share this with every cast member, crew member, every person who poured their love, care and brilliance into the making of this film.”

Best actress was the only major category that awards watchers had struggled to call – it had been seen as a dead heat between Stone and Lily Gladstone for Killers of the Flower Moon.

But Martin Scorsese’s drama about a string of Osage murders in the 1920s went home empty handed despite being nominated in 10 categories at the ceremony.

Barbie, the highest-grossing film of 2023, won only one of the eight prizes it was nominated for – best original song for What Was I Made For? by Billie Eilish.

“Thank you so much to the Academy, I was not expecting this, I feel so incredibly lucky and honoured,” Eilish said as she accepted the award with her brother and collaborator Finneas O’Connell.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph won best supporting actress for her portrayal of a school chef who is trying to cope with the death of her son in The Holdovers.

In her acceptance speech, Randolph told the audience: “For so long I have always wanted to be different. And I now I realise I just needed to be myself, and I thank you for seeing me.”

The Zone of Interest won best sound and became the first British film ever to win best international feature. The critically acclaimed Holocaust drama follows a German family who live next to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

In his acceptance speech, director Jonathan Glazer criticised Israel and the ongoing war in Gaza.

Best documentary feature went to 20 Days In Mariupol. Its director Mstyslav Chernov told the audience that he was “honoured” to become the first Ukrainian Oscar winner.

“I’m probably the first director on this stage to say I wish I would never have made this film,” he said, adding: “I wish to be able to exchange this [for] Russia never attacking Ukraine, never occupying our cities.”

Elsewhere, Anatomy of a Fall won best original screenplay. The film’s director and co-writer Justine Triet joked the Oscar would “help me through my mid-life crisis”.

The film follows a woman accused of killing her husband, with the only nearby witness her visually impaired son.

American Fiction was named best adapted screenplay. Its writer Cord Jefferson said: “I’ve been talking a lot about how many people passed on this movie when discussing it, and I’m worried that sounds vindictive, but it’s more a plea to recognise there are many people out there who want the opportunity I was given.”

The writer said he understood Hollywood “is a risk-averse industry”, but said studios should commission more smaller-scale movies. “Instead of making one $200m movie, try making 20 $10m movies,” he said.

Japanese fantasy film The Boy and the Heron was named best animated feature film, holding off competition from Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.

And director Wes Anderson won his first Academy Award in the live action short category for The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar, based on the story by Roald Dahl.

Kimmel hits back at Trump

For the fourth time, the ceremony was hosted by Jimmy Kimmel. The US chat show host opened with a monologue which reflected on the past 12 months in the film industry.

Recalling the strikes that brought Hollywood to a standstill, Kimmel paid tribute to the efforts made to get a fair deal for actors and writers.

He joked that actors could now stop worrying about “being replaced by AI, and could go back to worrying about being replaced by younger, more attractive people”.

Turning his attention to Barbie stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, he said: “If neither of you wins an Oscar tonight, I would like to say you won something much better, the genetic lottery.”

Kimmel also suggested the nominated movies “were too long this year”, adding: “When I went to see Killers of the Flower Moon, I had my mail forwarded to the theatre.

“Killers of the Flower Moon is so long,” he continued, “in the time it took you to watch it, you could drive to Oklahoma and solve the murders yourself.”

Towards the end of the ceremony, Kimmel read out an online post from former US President Donald Trump, who had complained about Kimmel’s performance.

Responding to Trump live on air, Kimmel said: “Thank you President Trump, thank you for watching, I’m surprised you’re still up, isn’t it past your jail time?”

Bodies of five skiers found in Swiss Alps

The bodies of five missing skiers have been found in the Swiss Alps, police have said.

Local authorities are still searching for a sixth person.

A huge search and rescue operation was launched on Saturday after the group went missing near the 3,706m high Tete Blanche mountain.

They had set off from Zermatt, home of the famous Matterhorn mountain, on a ski tour towards Arolla along the Swiss-Italian border.

Five of the six skiers were found at 21:20 local time (20:20 GMT) “without any signs of life,” a statement from Swiss Valais canton police said.

Authorities had previously told the BBC that the skiers were all Swiss nationals, and range in age from 21 to 58 years old.

Local police said teams on both sides of the route were alerted but severe weather was hampering the operation.

There have been high winds in the Alps for some days, and over the past 24 hours, heavy snowfalls. Saas-Fee, a winter resort neighbouring Zermatt, is currently cut off by snow.

Anjan Truffer, the head of Zermatt’s air rescue service, told the BBC that the weather was so bad that “flying is not an option”, with “very strong winds, heavy snow, high avalanche danger, and zero visibility”.

Mr Truffer said that the group may have been overcome by the bad weather, rather than struck by an avalanche, because they went missing on a part of the Zermatt Arolla route where the risk of avalanche is low.

Ski tours typically follow unprepared alpine routes, and are usually equipped with location finders and avalanche shovels.

The last signal from the group was recorded overnight. It was “not verbal”, Mr Truffer said, but allowed rescue services to get a rough idea of their location.

The route from Zermatt to Arolla is part of the famous 120km (75 miles) “Haute Route” from Zermatt to Chamonix.

It is very popular, but suitable only for the most experienced skiers, and can take several days.

Additional reporting by Sofia Ferreira Santos

Employers may not tolerate Gen Z’s casual language

In the quest to be themselves, many young workers communicate casually. It doesn’t sit well with all companies that see professionalism differently.

When Anna landed a job in the art department at a prominent London-based hedge fund straight out of university in 2022, she was the youngest member of her team by a decade. Unfazed by the age gap, Anna, who’d graduated at the top of her class, was eager to learn from colleagues. Their feedback was mostly positive, she recalls, but for one issue: her boss said her casual language and informal manner undermined her credibility.

She brushed it off. “I had good relationships with clients – I think it’s better to be personable than austere,” says Anna, now in her mid-20s. “I was performing well and thought that would be enough.” 

Four months into the job, however, she was fired. Her manager cited her “lack of professionalism”, including her frequent use of filler words like “like” and “totally”, as a contributing factor. Anna’s supervisor said she didn’t come across as an “intelligent” person who should be working at a top hedge fund, and that her demeanour didn’t fit the firm’s image.

Anna was devastated. “No-one told me beforehand what to say or not say. And everyone my age talks this way. How was I supposed to know?”

Older generations have nearly always looked down on younger ones, often arguing they are weaker, less serious or less prepared – especially at work. But experts say the current clash over Gen Z’s work language extends beyond standard-issue generational divides. Instead, it’s emblematic of how much life and work have changed throughout the past several years – and a harbinger of things to come.

Tension building

As new employees enter the workforce, they face the challenge of defining their professional identities. Figuring out how they conduct themselves, both through their speaking styles and overall manners, is part of the process. In past years, the task usually has not been so formidable. The workplace has traditionally demanded a type of formality in which employees are expected to conform to established norms set out by older leaders.

Younger people often get their news from social media, introducing them to casual language (Credit: Getty Images)

Yet these old ways – which establish a largely homogenous work culture – aren’t sitting right with a new generation of workers who prize individuality. The post-pandemic rise of remote work and its blurred lines between the personal and professional has contributed to a shift toward a less formal work environment as well.

“With new technologies and shifting values, younger people increasingly want their work and personal identities to be one and the same,” says Christopher G Myers, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, US, and an Academy of Management scholar. “They don’t want to have a fake work voice and persona. They want to be natural – they want to be themselves.”

For some members of Gen Z, the notion they must adhere to someone else’s standards seems artificial and at odds with their values of authenticity and self-expression, says Michelle Ehrenreich, who directs the communications program at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, US. “The upcoming generation has been told, ‘Be yourself! You’re you, and you’re wonderful!’ But there’s a tension when they start working in a more corporate environment,” she says.

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Bringing these attitudes and experiences to work means directly bucking the conventions that have been governing workplaces for decades. And that’s not what most employers are looking for – companies largely don’t usually want workers’ unvarnished selves in the workplace, says Ehrenreich. Instead, employees are expected to speak and carry themselves in a way that matches the organisation’s culture. 

This can be especially difficult for Gen Z, lots of whom lack the professional lexicon of past generations. Gen Z’s social media upbringing has left many with limited exposure to formal communication, says Caroline Goyder, a London-based communications and speech consultant who trains a mix of corporate clients.

The upcoming generation has been told, ‘Be yourself! You’re you, and you’re wonderful!’ But there’s a tension when they start working in a more corporate environment – Michelle Ehrenreich

Instead of watching or listening to mainstream news broadcasters with a more formal style, for instance, they’ve grown up with a variety of social media influencers, she says. In the US, late 2023 data from Pew Research Center shows roughly a third of adults younger than 30 regularly get news from TikTok. “Influencers tend to use warm, friendly tones and informal, high-energy speech patterns, such as bouncy-up talk, to make themselves seem more approachable,” says Goyder – a far cry from the buttoned-up vernacular of the Baby Boomer, Gen X and even millennial workplace.

The disconnect presents a problem for the youngest workers. Although communication standards can vary among industries, company sizes and roles, Ehrenreich says certain traditional rules of professional conduct remain essential in many situations.

Some data has shown professional success hinges on personal polish. A 2018 study published in Harvard Business Review showed that weak executive presence and poor communication style are the two most critical factors that can stall career progress. Even though the workplace has changed since this research was conducted, Ehrenreich believes the conclusions are still highly relevant today. To help young people succeed in employment, she works with students at Boston University to refine their communication skills, focusing on tone, eliminating filler words and improving eye contact as well as posture and body language.

And although it’s true an informal approach in the workplace can help build connections, if employees are perceived as too casual, it can have the opposite effect. (Just ask Anna.) “You can’t run a committee or make hard, serious decisions without balancing strength and warmth, formality with approachability, and task and relationships,” says Goyder.

Gen Z may not have to change themselves to succeed in the workplace – but they may want to change their language for now (Credit: Getty Images)

Which side wins?

Although Gen Z will still need to be aware of traditional ‘professional’ language – and must adhere to it for now, at least if they want to keep their jobs – the issue isn’t black and white in a changing world of work. 

In the aftermath of the pandemic, dress codes are looser, hours are more flexible and people work from home more often. All of this means communication too, is evolving in offices around the world. In the UK, an August 2023 survey by Barclays showed nearly three-quarters of respondents say that Gen Z are changing the formality of language in the workplace.

Gen Z’s casual speaking style could be an indicator of professional changes to come. “The approach that we take to our interpersonal communication is constantly evolving,” says Myers. These changes may slowly find their way into the workplace – but Myers says it often “lags behind and is slower to adopt some of these new ways of being”.

He adds that while younger professionals are expected to adapt to professional standards, senior leaders must also appreciate that language conventions and employee needs change over time. Leaders should be open to embracing a less formal approach that perhaps allows for more personal expression, he says. For instance, although they may still want to prioritise keeping “critical moments of communication at work” formal, there may also be situations, such as internal chats or team meetings, “where there isn’t as direct a business case to be made, policing language might not be worth it”,” he says.

You can’t run a committee or make hard, serious decisions without balancing strength and warmth, formality with approachability, and task and relationships – Caroline Goyder

Taking a long view, as Baby Boomers and Gen X gradually cede the reins of leadership to younger generations, a more casual tone may permeate the workplace. “Maybe when older generations move on, things will change,” says Ehrenreich. “But at the moment, the people in charge have expectations that they enforce.” 

As for Anna, she’s found a job in television, which she says is much better suited to her personality and skills. When she thinks back on her abbreviated stint at the hedge fund, it’s with a mixture of embarrassment and enlightenment. “I’ve done a lot of self-reflection,” she says. “I shouldn’t have been hired; it wasn’t the right job for me.”

It was, however, a learning experience. She says she still strives to be her “true authentic self” at work, but that she’s also focused on getting better at how she presents herself. She’s actively working on limiting “like” and “totally” from her vocabulary and figuring out how to make the most of her time with executives. “If I am in a meeting with someone senior, I sit up a bit straighter and smarten up my language. I am not fundamentally changing the way I speak, but I talk a bit differently.”

This, says Ehrenreich, is the smart approach – at least for now. “You’ve got to be able to flex your style if you want a big corporate job. It’s not about changing who you are, it’s about adapting.”

The adventure of raising bilingual children

Isabelle Gerretsen, who grew up speaking Dutch and English, investigates the latest science on helping children become fluent in two or more languages – including advice for parents who speak one language but would like their children to be multilingual.

When I was seven years old, I went away to a school camp for the first time. While there, we were all encouraged to write letters back home. I wrote a detailed letter in English to my mum, telling her about all the activities we’d been doing. I then translated the letter word-for-word into Dutch for my dad, a native Dutch speaker. This story still makes my dad, who is fluent in both Dutch and English, laugh.

My parents raised my sisters and I bilingually from birth. They sought advice and were told to only speak their respective languages to us. They stuck to this so strictly that for an embarrassingly long time we did not realise that they both spoke Dutch and English fluently. Nowadays, we speak a Dutch-English blend at home, often switching between languages mid-sentence. However, there is still a common idea that the model my parents followed is the best guarantee of raising truly bilingual children: start at birth, with each parent strictly sticking to their native language. Among language experts, it’s known as the OPOL strategy, short for “one parent, one language“. But is that really the only way of achieving bilingualism? And do you need to already have two languages in your life when you start the process, or can you raise a bilingual child even if you and others around you only speak one language?

Research shows that babies start learning language before they are even born (Credit: BBC/Getty Images)

There are actually many different ways to expose your child to two languages and no single approach has been found to be the best one, says Viorica Marian, author of the Power of Language and professor of communication sciences and disorders at Northwestern University in Illinois, in the US.

The approach my parents took – of only ever speaking to us in their respective languages – can work well for parents who speak different languages, Marian says. Other parents may choose to speak just one language at home, often a minority language, as they know their child will be exposed to the other language at school. (“Minority” in this context just means it’s less widely spoken or officially entrenched than the other language, in any given society or education system: in the US and UK, for example, Spanish would be a minority language, and English, the majority language.) Over time, families may need to make a special effort to keep the minority language in use: it is generally more at risk of fading away in children’s lives as their interactions outside the home increase, and the majority language becomes more dominant.

“A different strategy could be to speak to your child in a different language each day of the week,” says Marian. This is sometimes referred to as the “time and place” strategy among researchers and bilingual families, with each language associated with a specific time or location – the whole family might be speaking one language on weekends, or over shared meals, for example, and another language during the week, or when out and about.

The most effective strategies are those that can be incorporated consistently and long-term. “Ultimately, the strategy that will be successful is the one that works for your particular family and makes the experience enjoyable and not a chore,” she says.

The successful strategy is the one that makes the experience enjoyable and not a chore – Viorica Marian

Krupa Padhy, a radio presenter for the BBC World Service, is raising her two children, aged seven and nine, bilingually. Padhy was raised in a Gujarati-speaking household in the UK, while her husband speaks Hindi. They have decided to speak English and Hindi at home. “Hindi is more useful for them as it’s understood by the entire Asian subcontinent,” she says.

“We’ve got no coherent strategy,” says Padhy. Her main goal is to teach her children conversational Hindi so that they can introduce themselves, tell people how old they are and how many siblings they have. Learning sentence structures off by heart and repetition have really helped, says Padhy.

The family visits India every 18 months and Padhy says it is “so empowering for my kids to access that culture authentically”.

“It’s really nice that they are able to engage and understand what’s happening around them,” she adds.

Learning Hindi is also allowing the family to enjoy Indian culture at home. “Every Saturday night is Hindi movie night,” says Padhy. “The kids love watching Hindi movies. It’s really helping.”

A perfect window?

Research suggests that it’s a good idea to introduce the second language as early as possible, as children learn the sound and rhythm of their birth language, known as its phonology, at a very young age. According to a 2013 study, babies start learning language before they are even born. The study found that in the final 10 weeks of pregnancy foetuses are listening to their mothers talk and that they can demonstrate what they’ve heard once born.

Forty American and Swedish infants, about 30 hours old, were exposed to vowel sounds in their mother tongue and foreign language. Their response was measured by how long they sucked on a pacifier connected to a computer. Both the American and Swedish babies sucked longer for the foreign language than they did for their mother tongue. Longer sucking for unfamiliar sounds was evidence of learning and shows that babies are able to differentiate between languages at birth, the researchers said.

That doesn’t mean it’s ever too late to add a second language: older children and even adults can still learn other languages, and there can be other benefits such as the joy of connecting with one’s heritage. But younger children may find it easier to pick up a native-like accent, experts say. (Read BBC Future’s article on reclaiming lost family languages.)

“The earlier you start, the better,” says Sirada Rochanavibhata, assistant professor in the department of child and adolescent development at San Francisco State University, California. “An advantage of learning a language early is that it is easier to achieve native-like proficiency.”

“During the first six months, infants can discriminate between speech sounds of all languages,” says Rochanavibhata. After this, children lose the ability to tell apart sounds that are not used in their native language or languages they are exposed to.

Choosing a bilingual babysitter or participating in exchange programmes can help advance language learning (Credit: BBC/Getty Images)

“In English, the ‘r’ and ‘l’ sounds are distinct and can change the meaning of a word (for example, ‘read’ and ‘lead’), whereas in Japanese, the ‘r’ and ‘l’ sounds are combined into a single category (Japanese ‘r’). Japanese speakers learning English may find the English r–l distinction difficult,” explains Rochanavibhata. This process is known as perceptual narrowing.

The age at which a child acquires a second language can therefore impact their ability to hear and produce speech sounds of that language, she says.

However, if you or your family have missed that window, there are still other opportunities, Rochanavibhata and other researchers stress. “Adults can still become fluent in additional languages, but the process may require more effort and different approaches,” adds Rochanavibhata.

Motivating older children

There can also be practical advantages to setting a solid bilingual foundation in the early years, researchers say. Starting at a young age allows children to “be fully immersed” in both languages, says Antonella Sorace, professor of developmental linguistics and founder of the Bilingualism Matters programme, a research and information centre at the University of Edinburgh, in the UK, that promotes bilingualism and language learning. Young children don’t have other commitments, such as school and an independent social life, she says.

It’s not just starting early that can make a positive difference, however. The other challenge is to keep the second language going, especially once children become more independent.

To achieve this, it’s important that children are motivated and encouraged to speak multiple languages, says Sorace. “This is not always easy because children don’t like feeling different. We hear from many migrant children that they don’t want to speak their home language anymore, because that’s what marks them out as different.”

One way of encouraging children is by creating a “mini community” where they can regularly interact with peers who speak their language, she says. “This can be incredibly motivating.”

It is important that children hear both their languages frequently and spoken by a variety of native speakers, says Marian. “Having regular interactions with many different speakers of the two languages can help boost bilingual proficiency, as children are exposed to more diversity,” she says.

One way of encouraging children’s bilingualism is by creating a “mini community” with peers who speak their language – Antonella Sorace

Environment plays an important role and constant exposure to both languages is key, agrees Elisabet García González, research fellow at the Center for Multilingualism in Society Across the Lifespan at the University of Oslo in Norway. If a child born into a bilingual family stops using one of their languages when they are eight, that is going to have a significant impact on their bilingualism, she says. “Language is something that changes across the lifespan.”

Monolingual parents, bilingual children?

Even if parents aren’t fully multilingual themselves, they can still invite a mix of languages into the home, says Sorace. For example, a parent could start learning a second language and then occasionally use that language with their child, she says. This exposes the child to words or phrases in another language and has benefits even if the speaker is not perfectly proficient. “Perfection doesn’t exist in languages,” says Sorace.

In Sorace’s view, parents’ confidence to speak a mix of languages at home is more important than their linguistic ability. “If they are confident, the child will hear enough of that language and learn it,” she says. Discovering and using new languages then becomes a family project, with everyone getting the benefits, including the parents: “We tell parents to seize this wonderful opportunity [of enjoying another language with their child],” she says. “The aim is not for you to become perfect in the language, but to learn more and to be able to communicate with your child.”

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Padhy says her Hindi has improved since she started speaking it to her children. “I’m learning loads,” says Padhy. “I’m speaking better Hindi than I ever have before because I’m teaching them.”

There may also be other opportunities for monolingual parents to encourage bilingualism in the family, the researchers say. Marian suggests a range of options, for example, choosing a bilingual babysitter or nursery or signing their children up for language lessons at a community centre or after-school club where they hear multiple languages.

“As the child grows older, having them participate in exchange programmes and study abroad programmes, take foreign language courses, and travel to countries where the other language is spoken will further support and advance language learning,” she says.

Are bilingual brains different?

For those who do make the effort to acquire a second language – whether as children, or later on as adults and parents – the process can yield brain-boosting benefits, regardless of the level of fluency achieved.

Learning multiple languages leads to increased grey matter volume in the prefrontal cortex, the front part of the brain which is important for high-level thinking, such as decision-making and problem-solving, says Ashley Chung-Fat-Yim, research assistant professor in bilingualism and psycholinguistics at Illinois’ Northwestern University. “We also see improvements in white matter in the same brain regions.”

While grey matter is where important information processing happens, white matter carries messages between brain regions, explains Chung-Fat-Yim. “Think of grey matter as subway stations and white matter as subway tunnels connecting different subway stations to each other. Multilingualism helps to keep the structure of the ‘subway tunnels’ intact for faster and more efficient signal transmission. In other words, communication between brain regions can happen more optimally,” says Chung-Fat-Yim.

Speaking more than one language, and the mental exercise this involves, may also build the brain’s resilience and help delay the onset of symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, research suggests. According to a 2020 review of more than 20 existing studies, being bilingual can delay Alzheimer’s symptoms by as much as five years. Bilingualism does not prevent the occurrence of Alzheimer’s but rather helps ward off symptoms for longer, the researchers concluded. They described bilingualism as a form of cognitive reserve that strengthens and reorganises the brain’s circuits.

“Just like exercising strengthens your muscles, multilingualism strengthens your brain to maintain cognitive functioning,” says Chung-Fat-Yim. (Read more about how our brains cope with speaking more than one language.)

There are also cognitive benefits to be gained earlier in life, research suggests. According to one study, bilingual children may, for example, be better at switching between tasks than monolingual speakers. More than 100 children were asked to sort images of either colours or animals on a computer. The children who spoke a second language (French, Spanish or Chinese) were better at switching between the two categories, which indicates their multitasking ability, the researchers concluded.

“Learning another language is always a good thing,” says Sorace. “It enriches your world from a cultural point of view and benefits the brain.”

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