As with everything, language needs to be used and practiced in order for it to be learnt. So for bilingual or multilingual children, this means exposure to both or all their languages as much as possible. But how much is reasonable? Are your children exposed to their minority language regularly all week long? Would you say they are exposed to it around 30 percent of the time, on average (50.4 hours per week, if you’re being literal, although that would include sleeping hours)?
The idea of a minimum of 30 percent language exposure in the minority language came from a group of researchers who were doing studies on bilingual children. Fred Genesee, professor of psycholinguistics at McGill University in Montreal, explained that a child simply needs to be exposed to a different language for at least 30 percent of his or her waking time in order to acquire it. When deciding on what the minimum minority language exposure would be for the children in their study, the researchers decided on 30 percent. (This is not a scientifically chosen number, it was what the group of researchers decided as a threshold, so that the research results would be accurately assessing bilinguals).
“Parents or caregivers must ensure that children get a certain amount of exposure to the language, and that this exposure is consistent, continuous and rich,” Genesee said. If a consistent “language system” is followed, then learning several languages comes as naturally to a child as learning one, he said.
That means that up to three languages can be learned simultaneously, although the learning process will be more complex, in particular for the adults doing the teaching.
Does this mean that input in a language of less than 30 percent is not enough? Not at all! However, you have to be aware that you might not see as much regular progress in your child’s language mastery as you would hope. 30 percent is not a magic number. It will not guarantee multilingualism in your child! There are too many factors that work together to make this kind of idea possible! However, we can use 30 percent as a general number to aim toward. Can your family manage 50 percent? Excellent!! The chances are so much better for bilingualism or multilingualism with exposure like that!
When it comes to the amount of language your child hears, use your common sense with this. If one parent (speaking one of the languages) works a 40 hour week, and the other (speaking a second language) stays at home, then it is going to be much more difficult for your children to receive enough exposure to each language, especially if the working parent is the minority language parent. You may need to find additional ways for your child to receive language exposure, to reach an average of 30 percent: maybe through a nanny, friends, or extended family.
But remember, even if your child receives less than 30 percent exposure to the second language, there is no reason to give up! Any amount of language can have an impact- often greater than we realise. Otherwise, how would children from single language families (such as mine) manage to speak a foreign language? Music, books, a trip to a foreign country can all play a part in a child’s linguistic repertoire, as much as parental enthusiasm. We don’t always notice the impact that language has on our children until a lot later on in their lives, when they will pop out some wonderful word or expression and completely dumbfound us! The gift of language is priceless, no matter how it is learnt!