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Ask A Linguist FAQ

Bilingual and Multilingual Children:
A Different Perspective

Question: Can my new baby learn two or more languages at home?

Answer provided by Anthea Fraser Gupta, Senior Lecturer in Modern English Language, University of Leeds.

Although I agree with much of what Professor Ruuskanen says about this question, I would like to take a slightly different stance on one or two points. Her answer refers to a common pattern of bilingualism, but there are others. My own experience of child bilinguals has been mainly in Singapore and India.

In Singapore nearly all children come to nursery school at age 3 already able to speak 2 languages. Many can speak 3. A child growing up with only one language is quite rare. The reason for this is that most adults routinely use two or three languages in their daily life, both at home and at work, and switching between languages is the norm for everyone. There are also many ethnic groups in Singapore, associated with many different languages, and people need to know languages which they can speak to people from other communities. Lots of people come from families where language shift has taken place, so that their best language might not be a language their parents spoke at all. Parents are fairly relaxed about their children hearing a rather rich language stew, and expect their children to pick up languages. They do worry (like parents everywhere) about their children being able to develop good skills in reading and writing the languages they have to do at school.

In India, being able to speak only one language is a more common than it is in Singapore, but it is associated with poorer groups -- the richer you are, on the whole, the more languages you can expect to be exposed to from infancy. In both these places, bilingualism is not necessarily linked with biculturalism. English, for example, which is one of the languages usually spoken by bilinguals, is not associated with particular ethnic groups. English is a language of India and of Singapore -- it's not part of a foreign culture -- speaking with a UK or US accent would be seen as having a foreign accent. The pattern of bilingualism and the attitudes associated with it are quite different from attitudes in parts of the US and parts of Europe.

Question: Will my child be bilingual? Will bilingualism affect my child's intelligence?

Most people who learn more than one language do so because they need to. Languages are worth learning if they are some use. That use can be practical, or emotional, or (for adults) aesthetic. If people need to learn a particular language, they generally will. Children are no different to adults in this respect. (Professor Ruuskanen also discusses this fact.) You can expect your child to learn a language if the child thinks it's some use.

It's crucial to examine your situation and decide what language is most 'at risk' in your family. If you live in a place where there is a clear dominant language in the society, which is the language of the children your child will be playing with, you can be sure your child will learn that language. YOU don't need to worry about it at all. If you speak a language that is not used much in the community you live in, and especially if you use the dominant community language with your partner, you are going to have to work hard to develop your child's skills in that language.

But if you live in a place where there are lots of people who speak the same two languages, and where the child is exposed to Language X, Language Y, and all sorts of mixtures of X+Y, then you can relax. The chances are that the child will learn both of them. This is the usual experience for (for example) people growing up in educated families in Delhi -- they'll hear lots of Hindi and lots of English (and in some families lots of some other language(s) as well) and grow up with both, like most of their friends.

Occasionally people have deliberately introduced a second language into the home even though they are not in a situation that would naturally lead to bilingualism. This is usually because they think it is a good thing to know more than one language. If you want to do this experiment, you won't do any harm, but unless you create a need for the language it's not likely to be successful either. Lots of things are good for children to learn (e.g. swimming, painting, clay modelling, horse riding, music) -- you can't do EVERYTHING, and there is no special magic in bilingualism.

Bilingualism does not increase (or decrease) intelligence. There are bilinguals of all degrees of intelligence, just as there are monolinguals of all degrees of intelligence.

Question:Will hearing me speak more than one language confuse my child? Should I use the one-parent-one-language method?

Children are not confused by hearing more than one language. We have known for a long time that bilingual children separate their language from the age of 2: current research suggests they separate them from the beginning.

People who grow up in bilingual communities like Singapore take bilingualism for granted. Parents typically speak both languages to children, and parents and children often mix languages in the same sentence. Even mixing languages in the same sentence doesn't confuse children. The children have to be exposed to mixtures of language in order to learn the complex rules for when to use which language (and when you can use a mixture). They start to demonstrate that they know these rules by the age of 2. By the age of 2 we can clearly see that bilingual children faced with a monolingual adult will do their very best to speak in the language the monolingual knows.

The 'one-parent-one-language' method is sometimes put forward as the only way to raise bilingual children. It isn't. There are many routes to this end. If both parents can speak a minority language then their best strategy might be to speak only the minority language to their children, and let them learn the majority language of the community outside the home. If the family live in a place where everyone is bilingual in the same two languages, then they should behave naturally, switching languages and mixing them as they normally do.

Question: Is the speech of bilingual children delayed?

It used to be suggested that bilingual children were a little slower learning to speak than monolingual children. This is no longer an accepted view. In any case, any such difference would be very small. A bilingual child whose speech is delayed (for example, if they have not said the first word by 18 months) should be treated exactly like a monolingual child. It is dangerous to think that the child's speech is delayed because the child is bilingual. Bilingual children vary from one another just as monolingual children do -- some will be early and some will be late speakers. But all children whose speech is delayed should be assessed by a doctor and (if necessary) a speech-language practitioner, because if the child is deaf, or if there is some reason for the speech delay, it should be dealt with.

Question: Will my child learn my faulty pronunciation?

Many people in bilingual communities or in mixed marriages need to speak to their child (at least some of the time) in a language which is not their native language. There is nothing at all wrong with doing this. Language shift (moving to a language which is not the language of your ancestry) is a normal part of human behaviour. Some parents worry that they will pass on an 'incorrect' accent to their children. Don't worry about this.

Once children start mixing with other children (from the age of 2 or 3) they start to learn their accent from their friends. Parents soon discover that they are not the model for their children's language behaviour, any more than they are the model for their dress sense. Children acquire the language of the children's community they are in. Be prepared for this (you might not like it!).

The hearing children of deaf parents often grow up bilingual too, learning a sign language at home. They begin to model their speech on their parents' faulty pronunciation, but as long as they spend about 10 hours with speakers of oral languages, they seem to have no problem learning an oral language as well.

Question: What if my child refuses to speak our native language?

As Professor Ruuskanen says, it is common for a child brought up in a place with a strong community language to reject a minority one. My own daughter rejected her father's language when she was 2. When this happens it is because we have failed to provide the need for the language. In deciding on your reaction, you need think about your relationship with the child as well as about your desire for them to learn a language. All of us have to accept that we cannot control our children's life experiences. They will be their own people and make their own life which will be different from our lives, and which will not be as we envisaged their lives would be. Accepting language shift is part of accepting generational differences.

See Professor Deborah D.K. Ruuskanen's answer

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