preschool kidsMy daughter and I walked to Kindy the other day, chatting happily about what she was going to do once there: “Valentina and I will do some cooking, and go shopping. I need some new shoes, Mama!” It was a great conversation- fluent, pretty accurate for a 3-year old, and funny.

5 minutes later, as we walk in through the door of the Kindy, Valentina runs up to us. “Hallo Genny,” she says, and to me: “Sie ist mine beste Freundin!

To which Genny replies: “Hallo. Was machsts du? Ich muss einkaufen!”

And off they go together, for a day of German shopping and cooking.

How does she do it? She’s like a squirrel, eating nuts from 2 different trees! My German is limited to the above (and even that is probably not grammatically correct or well-spelt (spelled?)!), yet she is able to communicate with me in my language, and with her friends and teachers in theirs. Just like that. The motion of walking through the Kindy door is all it takes for her to switch languages, and she knows which language to use with which person.

Our friends’ children are the same, it seems. We have the lovely option here of sending our children to either German or bilingual schools, and so all our little ones run around code switching as easily as switching on and off the light (something my dear one does ad nauseam). A friend’s daughter now mostly talks German at home with her parents, although they speak Dutch and French at home, German being her ‘Kindy language’. For my daughter, certain words are definitely in her mind in German, as she learnt them at Kindy.

Is this something to worry about? Will our children grow up confused about which language to use when and with whom? Fortunately it’s an old-fashioned belief that code switching equals confusion in a child’s mind, and the majority of recent literature tells us that most mixed use of language is a natural and positive development in bilingual learners.

There are two major types of mixed language use: code-switching and borrowing, or “mixing languages.” When a child (or an adult) switches back and forth between two languages in the same sentence, using both with fluency, it is called “code-switching.” Borrowing, on the other hand, means using one primary language, but mixing in words or ideas from another. In borrowing, the child speaks one language, and alters vocabulary from another to fit the primary language. This is frequently done when a bilingual speaker lacks the exact word for the idea he or she wants to express in the language being used at the time.

Both bilinguals and non- bilinguals ‘borrow’ quite regularly. While I lived in Japan I picked up the word ‘genki‘, which can’t really be translated into English. We used it properly to ask ‘Genki desu-ka?’-  or ‘How are you?’, with the response: ‘Genki desu.’: I’m fine/ healthy/ happy etc. And then it pushed itself into English sentences: I’m not feeling very genki today! We borrow words like bon appetit and verboten, because they sound better or more appropriate for the situation, or because it’s easier than the clunky English version, and we have plenty of words adopted from another language and completely or partially naturalized into the language, such as macho, blitz, euphoria, liaison or aperitif. As do many other languages with English- again, it’s a creative, and often playful use of language.

As with code-switching, this does not indicate confusion on a child’s part. It actually shows good linguistic skill — the child is using the most appropriate word for a situation. Sometimes the word happens to come from a second language, that’s all.

Part of raising a bilingual child is accepting that they’re going to use both their languages. Wasn’t that the whole point? That means that, from time to time, your child is going to use both languages in combination with one another. Don’t panic when it happens- it doesn’t mean your child can’t tell the difference between the two languages. And eventually they will learn which words are more appropriate to use when. As long as they’re happy and learning and speaking, the rest will sort itself out.

But even with full understanding that code-switching and borrowing is normal, I still encourage my daughter (and soon my son) to speak to me in monolingual mode. I correct them and ask to repeat in English, and I know that at Kindy they will get the same support, just in German!

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