Is speaking to our child in two different languages too confusing and will it hinder their development?
Knowledge of two languages – bilingualism – is becoming increasingly common in the UK.
While the British may have an international reputation as being relatively poor at languages, the reality is quite different. Immigration to Britain has made us more linguistically diverse with many different languages spoken in homes, in addition to English.
What are the benefits of raising a bilingual child?
Research has suggested that raising a child as bilingual may have a number of advantages, and this far outweighs the possibility that in the very early stages a child may not appear to be fluent in both languages.
While bilingual children may, sometimes, begin to speak later than their peers, they soon catch up and the benefits of knowing additional languages far outweigh any minor disadvantages as the child progresses through school.
Studies carried out on Canadian children who are bilingual in English and French, for example, showed that these youngsters were better able to concentrate and less likely to be distracted from a task, than their monolingual peers.
They were also more creative and better at problem-solving. The benefits continued into adulthood. Bilingual people were found to earn more money (although this will, of course, depend on how widely used and in demand both languages are), and experienced less aging of the brain as they grew older, the study found.
Barbara Zurer Pearson, who has written books on raising bilingual children, says babies can tell the difference between language sounds just days after birth, especially if these languages differ greatly from each other, such as German and Arabic.
Previously, and partly due to poorly-designed studies on the subject, it was believed that as children grew older, they might be confused by more than one language at home, and parents were urged to speak to them only in English. This theory has since been disproved.
However, researchers acknowledge that children can ‘mix up’ two or more languages as they learn them, though this is only temporary. As they grow older they start to ‘sort out’ which language is which and may become more proficient in one than the other, if they use one language more in everyday life.
When should we start speaking to our child in two different languages?
There is no right or wrong time to start helping your child learn a second language, but the earlier you can do this, the better.
It doesn’t mean that your child will just pick up Spanish by watching cartoons in Spanish. But it is generally accepted that from 0-7 years, children’s minds are open and flexible, which makes them extremely receptive to learning new things.
Children raised in a bilingual home may also have the advantage of being able to put both languages on a parallel path, meaning that they are learning both languages separately but at the same time.
As a parent you will need to speak to them daily in both languages; the more relevant the language is to their everyday lives, the more likely they are to pick it up quickly and easily, so using it for general conversation at home is a good way to get started.
Barbara says: “We hear about the special 'window of opportunity' for young children to learn two languages, which can be discouraging to the older child. It's true that it's easier to start earlier, but people can learn a second language at any age.”
Speaking from experience
Irena Nowak is a parent raising her three year-old daughter, Kasia, to be bilingual in English and Polish.
“I speak to her in Polish when her English father is at work, and then we revert to English when we’re together as a family,” she says.
“I know from my own experience of speaking four European languages that knowledge of one or more makes the learning of each new language that little bit easier, because you begin to pick out the root words and similarities.
“If you speak a different language it costs nothing more than a little bit of effort to pass that on to your child to give them a useful skill in life.”
As Irena points out, if you already have the knowledge of a second language, helping your child to learn both their native language as well as the additional second language can have many benefits.
Bilingualism can enable children to communicate with members of their extended family and their wider communities, it provides children with another way of looking at the world and access to important aspects of culture (such as books, poems, TV programmes, and plays), and recent research has suggested that bilingualism may also have cognitive advantages.
Ten top tips for parents raising bilingual children
To help support your child successfully to becoming bilingual it is helpful to:
- Work towards a clear understanding between yourselves and your child’s key person as to your approach to your child’s bilingualism.
- Ensure the setting values your home language as your child’s first language and ‘mother tongue’.
- Stick to speaking your community’s language at home or in social and wider family situations as far as possible – a strong first language is a firm foundation for a second language to be built on.
- Speak to your child in your home language when you are settling her or him into the setting. This helps him or her to understand unfamiliar objects or activities, know where things are or what will happen next.
- Make sure he or she is confident to be left with their key person and can communicate his or her needs.
- Ensure staff know some essential words in your language and have them written down to show how they are pronounced.
- Share information with your child’s key person about your child’s language development at home, to see how he or she is progressing in each language.
- Provide opportunities for your child to make friends with other children who speak the same language. This helps maintain your language as well as help children learn about their culture.
- Reply to your child in your home language, not English when they speak to you in English - but don’t correct them or try to force them to use your language – be as natural as you can be.
- Work with your child's nursery setting to have shared activities that you can do with your child at home such as through book bags or story sacks, so that your child can develop similar vocabulary in both languages.
Written for the Early Years Alliance by Dorothy Lepkowska.
This article was first posted in October 2016. It was refreshed and had the Top 10 Tips added to it on Tuesday 26 February 2019.