SO, MADONNA AND her British husband, Guy Ritchie, are having problems understanding their children. Don't we all? However, their problem is more complicated than the average parent/child communication difficulties because daughter Lourdes and son Rocco attend an exclusive French school in London. 'Rocco is picking up a lot of French,' Guy's father, John Ritchie, told Britain's Sun newspaper. 'He speaks it all the time at home because Lourdes is fluent. They talk to each other in French all day, chatting away non-stop. It's very funny. Neither Guy or Madonna speaks a word of the language so they can't understand anything.' It's a story that may sound familiar to many in Hong Kong, where the racial mixture of expatriates and locals means it's not just the rich and famous who live in multilingual households. Such an environment has benefits for children, with those who speak two or more languages generally having a wider range of international friends, a tendency to be more culturally aware, and a distinct advantage in the global job market. Speech and language therapist Melinda Sturgess says that children who grow up surrounded by more than one language have a tremendous advantage throughout their lives, providing there's good quality exposure to the languages. 'We don't learn language in a passive way,' she says. 'We learn through actively seeing it being used in our environment. Its purpose is communication. Good quality exposure is meaningful exposure. It's not merely the occasional watching of a TV programme in another language. It's using that language for meaningful conversations, where the child is experiencing true interaction.' Korean-born Swede Mimmi Johnsson has two children, Joel, 5, and Ellen, 3, who are being brought up in a multilingual home. 'For my husband and me, our native language is Swedish, and we speak Swedish at home with the children,' Mimmi says. 'Both the kids are fluent in English and Swedish, but Ellen, who was born in Hong Kong, definitely prefers English. Fifty percent of her words are in English. Joel is more comfortable using Swedish. I'd feel awkward addressing him in English. If I ask him a question in English, he replies in Swedish.' Like many children in Hong Kong, Joel is learning Putonghua and is taking extra lessons in the language. On a recent trip to Guilin, Johnsson says she was surprised by his ability not only to greet and talk to the locals in their language, but by the level of understanding and empathy that this required on his part: Swedish and English were inappropriate for the situation, so he inherently knew to use Putonghua. It was a new and unusual experience for Johnsson, given that she doesn't speak Putonghua. Sturgess says a multilingual environment, in which the parent doesn't share one of their children's languages, doesn't have to be a problem, as long as it's balanced by ample chances for the family to communicate in a common language. 'Problems for Hong Kong families arise, for example, when parents who don't use English at home send their children as little pre-schoolers to English kindergartens, or expatriate families send their children to a local, Chinese kindergarten when neither parents speaks Putonghua,' Sturgess says. 'The parents can't reinforce the language at home, which means it's much tougher for the children to learn. What we have to remember is that language is culturally based. What children are learning about they can't share with their families, and this can be very difficult for everyone.' Edward Longworth knows all about it. A native English speaker, he recently left Hong Kong for the Czech Republic, where the language he uses in his daily work environment is German. His wife is Czech, although he doesn't speak the language, and they're expecting their first child in November. 'When we first met, we spoke English, and it has established itself as the language of the relationship, but I envisage that my child's first language will be Czech,' he says. 'I can't expect a mother and her child to communicate in any other language except her native tongue, especially when we're living in that country, but I don't want the language to become a barrier between me and my child. It would really concern me if I couldn't give the kind of parental support to my own child for want of a common language. It's going to be pretty hard to be a good parent if you can't communicate effectively with your child.' Sturgess says that, as long as parents put an effort into keeping a second language alive for their child, they can overcome the problem of not sharing a common mother tongue. 'Use as many opportunities as you can to introduce the child to that environment. Find other families in a similar situation so the child can experience the language being used for communication, stock up on a good range of books for months to come so the child can refer to them, using them to help build vocabulary. Songs and videos in that language are useful.'Longworth agrees that, although there are a few challenges ahead, there are also many positives to be gained from being part of a multi-lingual family.