Many children in a bilingual household come out with the cutest of sentences: “Je cherche mes trousers, Maman”… “Este es una bed… mi baby puede dormir aquí”. It sounds so sweet, but is it what we really want to hear?
Although I previously wrote a post on mixing languages (see my post: “Do I confuse my kids?“), for many parents it’s frustrating to have their children speak to them in a jumble of their two mother tongues. Generally children learn to sort them out on their own, especially when there are clear-cut situations when they use each language, such as in my situation, where it’s English at home, German at Kindy, or with many of my friends here in Austria where they have one language with Daddy, and the other with Mummy. Kids learn to code switch well in this kind of situation (See: “How do they know: kids and code-switching“), their brains are very flexible, so once they learn two (or more) languages properly, they will have no problem whatsoever switching between them.
There are some tried and tested (but not always popular) strategies to help children to keep their languages apart:
Have different days for different languages. This one has mixed reviews, as small kids have no concept of “weekdays” so they don’t see any context even when you know that the context is “weekend”. If you really want to do this, then perhaps you could connect it to something that small kids understand, like “English after sundown” or “English at the playground”. Advice from a pediatric nurse was to use the language of the country we live in when our child has friends over, but to use our own language(s) in all other situations.
Attend language playgroups. As above, specific places for different languages can help a child to become aware of when to speak a language. Going to a playgroup in the minority language for example will help the child to see that there is a reason for using that language, and will give them specific people to practice it with. It will become natural then for the child to switch automatically to the language as soon as they get to the playgroup.
Go to story time in the second language. Reading aloud is a wonderful way to expose children to another language. Books open up a new world to kids and increase their vocabulary almost effortlessly, and they’re a great way to spend time with your child. While you can read to your children anytime, anywhere, there’s something special about attending a structured story time at your local library or bookshop (A lovely example is here).
Puppets and puppet shows are another powerful tool for bilingual learning. Encourage children to make their own puppets and to give them names in the second language. Putting on a puppet show gives kids an opportunity to practice their vocabulary in a creative way through storytelling.
Try not to mix. This is hard, especially if you are bilingual yourself and want your children to grow up with both your languages, as well as the other parent’s. Children model what they see and hear, so if your child lives in an environment in which mixing languages is the norm, expecting him not to do so is unrealistic. Experts agree that mixing is temporary. Eventually, it goes away as a child’s vocabulary develops in both languages and he has more exposure to each one.
Don’t introduce a third language just ‘because’. Alena Netolická, (BSc. (Hons.), M.H.Sc., Speech-Language Pathologist for the Canadian Medical Center in Prague) encourages parents to consider carefully just how important a new language is to a child’s life before introducing it. Is it a language that the child will need to be parented? To stay in touch with their cultural heritage? Is the language required for academic purposes? Is it the majority language of the child’s home country? An answer of “yes” to any of these questions indicates language relevance. But Netolická reminds us that: “Human beings are still able to learn language, with near-native competence, even when they are older.”
Think carefully about schooling. Multilingual children face the greatest obstacles when they begin school, where performance expectations are designed for monolinguals. “Multilingual students may need extra time developing academic proficiency,” says Netolická, adding that while your child may be proficient in both of her languages, some language-based tasks will be a challenge due to language interference. Bilingual schools cater for children who need input in both languages, and help to maintain a good level in the two.
Don’t feel too guilty about slip-ups. According to Netolická, strictly sticking to a particular strategy at all times can be an unrealistic goal. “Families who follow the one-parent, one-language system may find three-way conversations tricky, and that it leaves the parents with no common language.” Occasionally speaking your non-dominant language with a spouse or his / her family isn’t necessarily harmful to your child’s language development.
In actuality, bilingual speakers of all ages mix their languages. A perfect example is the widespread use of Spanglish (mixing English and Spanish) by Latinos in the United States. “Sometimes people do it because they don’t know a word they need in the language they’re speaking,” says Barbara Zurer Pearson, (author of Raising a Bilingual Child). “Some people mix on purpose because they like the word or phrase in the other language better.”
Being multilingual is not only about the acquisition of the language, but also learning the ability to switch and handle different languages.It’s up to us parents to make that as easy as possible for our budding linguists!