Seeing several bilingual children in clinic, I’m often asked many questions by concerned parents saying “ My child is learning several languages, what should I do? ”. Here is an article that summarizes their questions and that may answer some of yours.
First, to clarify the text, here are the definitions of some acronyms used in the article:
L1 = first language
L2 = second language
Q: The earlier they learn, the better?
A: Not necessarily true, no study proves it.
The false idea many have about learning a second language is that the earlier children start learning, the better it will be. However, during school, at around 8 years of age, children learn with an awareness of the importance of using the second language and demonstrate better long term results. Also, during adolescence, the learning of an L2 also becomes more explicit, especially in vocabulary. English, for example, being a widely used language in the media, the entertainment industry and social networks, often starts to be used by teens who don’t speak it, since they are so much involved in these aspects so “important” in their lives!
Beware! This does not mean that early learning is bad, but simply that we do not necessarily have to force children to learn a language that is not in their current environment, nor that parents have to speak a language they do not master. The only aspect that could benefit from early language learning is the pronunciation. Again, do not rush to teach a language, if you force yourself to speak a language you do not master in order to teach your child, your pronunciation will be bad, and so will his.
Q: What is the best way to teach my child a language?
A: Be natural!
If you naturally speak your native language at home, do so with your child. It is very important that your child has a solid foundation in his native language (L1) to learn a second language (L2) later. The more the foundation in L1 is solid, the more blocks of L2 your child will be able to build up with confidence.
If your child’s environment is naturally bilingual, he will naturally learn both languages, so stay natural in that case as well.
Q: My child is learning a second language at school, should I start speaking that language to him?
If the environment is L1 monolingual at home and the child begins to learn an L2 in school, continue to talk to him in L1. L2 should not replace the L1, because the loss of L1 can harm the development of L2.
Q: Is being a bilingual child like being two monolingual children in one?
A: Yes and no.
Bilingual children learning two languages at the same time develop their skills in both languages similarly, but differently than children who speak only one language.
How similarly? The bilingual child’s overall language development follows the same pattern as that of a monolingual child. Also, a bilingual child who is exposed to a language around 40-60% of the time is comparable to a monolingual child speaking only that same language.
How differently? A child is rarely exposed to two languages equally. Therefore, the bilingual child’s two languages complement each other to give him a distinct profile. For example, if he speaks L1 and L2, he will have a L1 vocabulary smaller than that of a child who only speaks L1 and a L2 vocabulary smaller than that of a child who only speaks L2. But, if we add both the vocabularies of both his languages together (L1 + L2), the bilingual child will have a total vocabulary that is slightly larger than that of a child who speaks only L1 or only L2. Also, a bilingual child is different because both languages may be “specialized” in a certain vocabulary subject. For example, if he mostly uses French at school and English at home, he will know more educational terms (shapes, colors, etc.) in French and more daily routine terms (bath time, clothing, food, etc.) in English.
Q: My child and his friend have always been in the same classes, why do they not have the same level of bilingualism?
A: Several factors are at play for each language.
The two different languages’ development differs from one bilingual child to another. Learning two languages at the same time depends on several factors, such as:
- the age at which he started to be exposed to each language;
- the environment(s) in which each language is used;
- the language’s status (majority or minority);
- the similarity between the two languages ( French-English vs. English-Arabic);
- and most of all, the time of exposure to each language in % or hours: at school (in class, during recess or lunch time, etc.) and at home (with siblings, tv, neighborhood, etc.).
Q: Can my child be confused if he learns two languages?
From a very young age, children can differentiate the languages that surround them. Your child understands that he speaks two languages and is able to learn and develop them. If he is mixing both languages in his sentences, it does not mean that he is mixed up. He knows that you understand him and uses the word that comes most quickly to his mind. Code-switching, or mixing the two languages in our sentences, is normal when we are bilingual. It should adjust itself with time. On another note, if your child has a language difficulty (comprehension, expression or pronunciation), he can still become bilingual. Speaking different languages will not confuse him. However, his difficulties are likely to be found in both languages. This is another topic that will follow …
The moral of this article is to remain calm if:
- your child is learning a new language
- your child has a language in which he is stronger
- your child is switching between languages in his sentences
- you do not speak the language he is learning