If only I had a dime for every time a confused mother came into my office asking what language should she speak to her children in! There is so much information on the internet and in literature over this subject, but I am also lucky to have been experiencing how it is like raising bilingual children for the past 4 (and something) years.
It is becoming more and more common, nowadays, for children to grow up in bilingual families. Sometimes they even have to speak three or four languages. Many parents are faced with issues concerning their language abilities, development and questions about the possible problems their children might have to deal with growing up in such a multi linguistic environment.
There are families that automatically speak two languages since one parent is of different nationality, and families that choose to raise their children speaking two or more languages. In either circumstance, one should consider the pros and cons before making an informed decision on which way they will linguistically raise their children.
Although parents come from different countries, many worry on the impact that two languages will have on their children. Some even choose to speak only one language, in fear that their children will face problems at school, mixing with their peers and not be able to culturally ‘fit in’.
Let’s try to answer some of the most common concerns parents ask about.
Will my child get confused with using two languages at home?
Absolutely not. When children are introduced to two languages or more from birth, then go through the same basic milestones in language acquisition as when they learn only one language. As long as both parents mostly speak in their own native language, children learn the right usage of each language without any problems. ‘Bilingual children begin to babble at the same time as monolingual children; they say their first words at the same age as monolingual children; they start to produce multi-word sentences at the same time; and so on.’
Children absorb new information and are able to learn languages in a faster pace than adults and much easier. When a child is born in an environment that parents use two or three different languages, it becomes normal for a child to process these languages daily and acquire the skills needed to deal with them. Some parents worry so much about language problems with bilingual children that one of them chooses to NOT speak their own native language and switch to the other one instead.
This practice, however, will not change anything in the process of language acquisition and development in a child and only result in the alienation towards the second language.
What if my child mixes both languages in the same sentence?
Sometimes people, indeed, who use more than one language even use both in the same sentence. This is commonly known as code-mixing or code-switching. Most bilingual children often use words from both languages or more in a sentence. It is a natural process and nothing to worry about- they will get better at this as they grow up. It is important, though, to learn a specific pattern from birth. ‘There is a lot of research showing that even children in the earliest stages of bilingual development know how to use their languages separately, even with strangers they have never met before.’ If in your family home or community, code-mixing is common, though, then children will learn to do the same.
Most of the times children will keep the languages separate. Code-mixing occurs in order to fill in gaps in their vocabulary on one or the other language. Children cannot always know the exact words in both languages so they will often switch to make up for gaps.
Others, still, will mix languages and words in a sentence so as to express meanings and concepts that are easily expressed in one language but not the other. This phenomenon appears the most in families where both parents understand both languages. Children will ‘use’ the easiest, most suitable expression in either language interchangeably.
‘Mixing does not mean that children are confused or impaired; they are simply using all of their language resources to express themselves’.
What are the benefits of raising my child bilingually?
‘Research has shown that children who are fluent in two languages also have cognitive advantages in comparison to those who speak only one language. For example, they are better at solving problems that involve focusing on relevant information while ignoring irrelevant information. Even bilinguals who are 60 or 70 years of age demonstrate these kinds of advantages.’
Bilingual children are capable of switching from one activity to another faster and are much better at multitasking than monolinguals. Bilinguals have better cognitive control over information and thus find it easier to switch between tasks.
Bilinguals have increased mental flexibility and creativity. When you learn there is more than one word for an object, it stretches the mind in new ways and gives children greater mental flexibility and creativity as they have two windows through which they view the world.
[quote_box_right]Bilingualism frees the mind from the prison of concrete language and phenomena (Hakuta, 1985).[/quote_box_right]
A study conducted in 2004 which also strengthened earlier studies, showed that bilingual children display stronger logic skills and are better equipped than monolinguals at solving certain mental puzzles (Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee).
‘Bilinguals have to switch languages quite often — you may talk to your father in one language and to your mother in another language,’ says Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain. He added that ‘it requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.’
In a study comparing German-Italian bilinguals with Italian monolinguals on monitoring tasks, Mr. Costa and his colleagues found that the bilingual subjects not only performed better, but they also did so with less activity in parts of the brain involved in monitoring, indicating that they were more efficient at it.
Moreover, scientists emphasise that ‘babies’ brains are cross-cultural because of their their sensitivity and flexibility to sounds, grammar etc. and can therefore acquire any language to which they are adequately exposed.’
Another good reason for raising children bilingually is the child’s ability to effectively communicate with members of the family or relatives who only speak one of the parents’ language. Children from multi linguistic families who are being cut off from one language, in preference of the other one more regularly used in the community they live in, are not able to sustain relationships with grandparents and long distance family parents.
Let’s not forget that the potential for accessing and dealing with all kinds of information such as printed, electronic and in any other form, is much greater for those who can speak more than one language. With English being the most widely used second language in the world, being used in politics, education, science, media and other areas, it is beneficial for children to be able to communicate in English. They will be able to have access to many more resources than those who speak only one language or who don’t speak English.
Lastly, according to Stephanie Meade, who is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of InCultureParent, ‘bilingual children have a better ability to focus and ignore distractions in the environment. That’s because the part of the brain called the executive function, used for planning, judgment, working memory, problem solving and staying focused on what’s relevant is stronger in bilinguals.
Every time you speak, both languages are actually active, and the brain has to work to suppress one language while the other is being used. That mechanism employs the executive function of the brain more regularly in bilinguals and therefore it becomes more efficient. This ability starts very young in bilingual babies.’
Will my child’s language learning be delayed due to speaking two languages at the same time?
If children are given adequate exposure to both language, then they will develop normal patterns of language learning as monolingual children. Ideally, parents should divide their learning time equally to 50% exposure for each language. However, if one of the languages is given less exposure than the other one, then children might show delayed or even incomplete development in that language.
‘Experts have concluded that bilingual children must be exposed to a language during at least 30% of their total language exposure if their acquisition of that language is to proceed normally.’ If this is not achieved then it will only result in a non complete acquisition of that language.
Commonly, we find that preschool bilingual children lack in vocabulary compared with monolingual children if languages are examined separately. However, if it is examined in both languages as a total, bilingual children have vocabularies of the same or even much bigger size than monolingual children.
In which circumstances shouldn’t a child be raised bilingually?
Parents need to make sure that they can provide the right learning environment that is required for the development of both languages. They need to know, first of all, that there will be adequate exposure and support for both languages.
If the family is thinking of temporarily moving to a new country due to work or personal commitments is not wise to start teaching a new language to their children for only a couple of years of exposure to that language.
Also, if both parents speak the same language but choose to raise their children bilingually they have to make sure that at least one of the parents speak that language really well as if it was their native.
Children need long term exposure to a language if they are to develop full competence. ‘Young children often react badly to inconsistent or irregular exposure to language; they like consistency. Thus, if parents decide to raise their child bilingually, they should do so only if they can provide continuous and extended exposure to both languages.’
If you decide to do so yourselves, gather information and make an informed decision that will greatly benefit your children in the future and during their childhood also. The research so far overall suggests that there seems to be a strong correlation between learning a second or third language and intelligence and open mindedness amongst other very important benefits.
‘On days when your bilingual journey seems particularly challenging, just remember you are giving your children a great gift by raising them bilingually. And keep up the good work!’