Tuesday, September 23, 2008

English Language: Raising a Bilingual or Multilingual Child

For those of you who don't know, my husband is Danish, so of course we speak both English and Danish to our 3 month old daughter and have plans to raise her as a full bilingual. It surprises me how often I get questions and comments about our choice to do so.

Just last weekend after a Danish friend heard me speaking English to my daughter she shockingly said, "You speak English to her?! Isn't she going to be confused?" Another Chinese friend once told me that my daughter won't be able to speak "for years" because it "takes longer" when children learn more than one language at once. Even my husband has fears that our daughter will end up speaking Danish with an accent since she doesn't hear it as much as English.

Even though there are these (and other) fears, the truth remains that our children are growing up in an increasingly global world. More and more parents are trying to teach their children multiple languages from a young age hoping that it will benefit them in the long term.

So what do the linguists say?

First of all it's important to understand how children learn language. When we are born we have an innate capability for speech. Barring a specific speech impediment or physical disability we have the capability to produce every sound in every language perfectly. Over time a process called "perceptual narrowing" occurs where we begin to figure out which sounds we need for our own language(s) and we focus on those sounds and ignore any other sounds.

This is why language input is important from a young age. My husband's fear of our daughter developing an American English accent on her Danish is unwarranted because first of all, I don't speak Danish to her (more on that later) and secondly, my husband spends every moment he can speaking, reading and singing Danish to her. I also try to supplement that with Danish music CDs and videos in the background so she hears the sounds.

When I was learning about first language acquisition during my time at university, the one-parent, one-language system was still widely recommended. What this means is that each parent should only speak one language to the child (ie: I speak English, my husband speaks Danish) so that the child doesn't get confused. More recent studies suggest that children actually don't get confused and when they switch between two languages or use two languages simultaneously (this is called code switching) it is a sign of mastery of the languages.

Personally, I still feel that the one-parent, one-language system is the best way to go. This is purely based on my own experience with language. I personally find it confusing and feel that my language skills are diminished when my husband and I switch back and forth between languages. I feel that it's harder to master a language if you allow yourself to "fill in the blanks" with another language. Code switching is actually a much more involved process than "filling in the blanks" and has many nuances, but we won't discuss this here.

I also choose to only speak English to my daughter because it feels more natural speaking my native language to my child. No matter how fluent you become in a foreign language, I truly believe that you will never be able to express yourself in exactly the same way as your native tongue permits.

Many parents are scared to introduce multiple languages because they fear it will "take longer" for a bilingual child to start speaking or that there could be "language delays" in the child's speech. There are no linguistic studies that support this argument, and that's that!

So what can you do if you want your child to grow up bilingual or multilingual? Here are a few ideas:

1. Make sure that your child has live interaction with language speakers. Videos and music can be supplemented but will not be as effective as a real person.

2. Read to your child

3. Talk about many different subjects in many situations in order to build a larger vocabulary.

4. However you choose to introduce two languages (one-parent, one-language or speaking the minority language at home) be consistent.

5. Gently guide your children in the two languages. Don't be harsh or demeaning when they make mistakes (and they will). You want them to develop a love of languages, not be scared to speak them.

6. Remember that learning languages is hard. We always say that children learn languages easily, but remember, they usually can't carry on meaningful conversations with strangers until they are around 5 years old! Adults can actually master languages much more quickly! Give your children the time they need to be comfortable with language.

Once you make the decision to raise your children bilingually, stick to it! A language is the greatest gift you can give another person. You can open new doors and opportunities for your children that might not have been there could they not speak additional language. I'm sure that, one day, my daughter will thank me - in Danish and English.

1 comment:

  1. I am also an American with a Danish husband practicing "OPOL" (one person one language). My 5.5yr old son is fluent in English and almost as much in Danish. We moved to Panama when he was 20 months and we took on a Spanish speaking housekeeper. At first, it did concern us that Niclas was slow to speak more than a few words (mama, dada) and even more garbled Danish. We put him in a Spanish speaking daycare at 2.5 yrs old. What was looking to be a major concern turned into an absolutely amazing result. Niclas could "flip" in and out of Danish, English and Spanish so rapidly it was astonishing. PLUS, he picked up the Spanish accent from the school and the Danish (Fynsk) accent from my husband. His Spanish exceeded mine in just over a year and at 5 yrs old, became the translator between myself, my Danish speaking in-laws, and our housekeeper.

    Now, my 2nd son who was born in Panama and raised from birth in a tri-lingual environment, is still not speaking more than a few words (mama, dada) and will be 3 in May. I am a bit concerned about the delay, but he is not yet in school (we're now in India so Hindi would be introduced). While he's as smart as a whip (will program your dvd player and can manuver our computer already) the delay in speech has bothered me. His milestones (crawling, walking) came months after my oldest son so we're hoping this pattern also applies to his late talking. Whatever it is, we're still thrilled he can at least understand the 2 languages. Good thing our housekeeper in India speaks English or it'd be even more confusing for the little guy!