Raising bilingual children

12 Jun

How can we help our kids to master 2 (3,4) languages?

Is it even possible to be truly bilingual?

Yes. There are many truly bilingual children and adults, who feel equally comfortable with both languages.  Having said that, there is a great number of people who have one clearly dominant language. For example, my dominant language is probably always going to be Russian, even if for no other reason than its phonetics and phonology. I am probably equally comfortable with reading and writing in English or  Russian, but my spoken English is bound to be accented.  Thus, there is a clear dominance of one language over another.    In fact, it is more often than otherwise that one language dominates the other. Your child may become truly bilingual, but, chances are,  English will be his/her dominant language.  However, you can still help your little one achieve fluency in a second language (L2).

How do children learn languages?

Linguists and Psychologists believe that there are innate mechanisms that allow a child to acquire language relatively effortlessly. One of those strategies is Mutual Exclusivity, an assumption that there is only one name for every object. For example, if you point at a doll and say “doll,” the child knows that this object (doll) has this name (“doll”). If in addition you point at the doll and say “beautiful”, the child knows that “beautiful” cannot be a name for this object because it already has a name “doll”.  Of course, if there are two (or more!) languages, the child will hear two (or more) names for each object. To clear this confusion, the child must first figure out that there are two different languages and then apply Mutual Exclusivity within each language. Thus, even simple word learning will take more time for bilingual than for monolingual children, because to begin learning words, a child needs to figure out that these are two different languages.  To make this work easier, it helps when each person consistently speaks only one language. For example, in bilingual families, the mother always speaking L1 and the father always speaking L2. This clear distinction of social contexts will help the child to distinguish between languages.  Alternatively, at home there is always L1 and in school L2.  Again, the two different languages are clearly distinguished by social contexts.

Another strategy that children use to learn a language is syntactic bootstrapping.

Read this sentence:

Derk here! Derk up! Derk down! Derk who is here.  Derk what you have done! Derk at the book. Derk at me.

it’s pretty obvious that “derk” stands for “look” and the way you figured it out is by paying attention to the structure of the sentences above. It’s clear, for example, that “derk” is a verb.

If a child learns two languages, s/he has to parse (or decipher) two completely different structures, before s/he can use syntactic bootstrapping. For example, L1 can have  a fixed word order, while L2 might have various case markers.  Thus, learning syntax will take more time when the task is to learn two languages and not one.  The best way to help your child is to use the same words in different sentences: “Look, a cat! The cat is purring. The black cat is purring. The cat likes you”.  By using the same word in different sentences, not only you are helping your child to figure out the meaning of this word, you are helping her decipher the entire structure of the language she is learning (its syntax)!

It also helps to play sorting games with your children.  For example, for learning color words, it’s great to sort all red things in one pile and all blue things in another. For learning nouns it’s great to sort all dolls in one pile, and all teddy bears in another (or all toys in one pile and all books in another). It’s also very useful to sort things in accordance with how they are used. For example, all clothing items in one pile and all items related to kitchen in another.  If you have time, draw different objects for your child (a spoon, a book, a pencil, a notebook, a plate, a doll, a ball, a teddy bear, etc), then cut them out with her, and then sort them together in different piles, while describing them verbally. Kids adore this game, and they learn tons of language!

It is true that learning two languages takes more time than learning just one. But don’t be discouraged! Your child will catch up with her monolingual friends and she will speak both languages (although some language dominance is likely to be present) and the second language will make her world richer and brighter!  Read to your children in both languages, and remember that the main function of human language is communicative. So talk to your child! Happy talking! And, of course, happy listening!

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4 Responses to “Raising bilingual children”

  1. Zapiens June 13, 2013 at 8:48 pm #

    Derk here! Derk up! Derk down! Derk, what’s going there. Derk, what you have done!

    I actually read this first with ‘Derk’ being a personal name, as there is a Dutch name ‘Dirk’ (the 2nd phrase did not quite that.) But, English is not my native language.

    • Dr. Eugenia Steingold June 18, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

      You are right, of course! I missed out several examples such as “derk at me” or “derk who is here”. These examples disambiguate between a name and a verb, which signifies certain action.
      Thank you very much for pointing out that my original examples were ambiguous.

  2. Dimitri June 18, 2013 at 5:02 pm #

    One thing we found was very important in helping our kids keep Russian an active language was to never allow them speak English to us – starting at the age of 1 year old. We only speak one language at home (Russian) and English is not allowed – unless, of course, we have guests. It’s very important to start doing it from the very beginning. If you allow them to address you in English when they are 2, they will keep doing it when they are 3 and nothing on Earth will prevent them from talking English to you. If you relax for 1 minute – that will be the end of it – your kids will understand your language, but they will not be able to speak it well.

    • Dr. Eugenia Steingold August 9, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

      Dimitri, you are right, using only one language at home is very important for children. Alas, as any good strategies this one has its limits:
      1. Many families use 2 or more languages at home, because parents are native speakers of different languages. Thus, parent 1 often speaks L1, parent 2 often speaks L2 and there is one common family language. In this case,the Family Language is likely to be kids’ dominant language. Still, many children succeed even with this complex system.

      2. There are situations, when talking about language becomes difficult and even inappropriate. For example, when a child is pouring his/her heart to you (she maybe over-excited, upset, scared, etc), it is probably best to let her tell everything she needs to tell her in language of her choice. After all, language exists only for communicative purposes, and warm and effective communication with your kids shouldn’t be sacrificed. However, once the problem is solved and the excitement subsided, it is fine of course, to remind her to switch into L2. Moreover, some kids don’t mind translating everything they just said in L1 into L2. It is also fine to keep responding to her in L2 throughout her excited speech in L1.

      3. There are children with delayed auditory processes. Those children usually experience delays in receptive and expressive language and they receive Speech Therapy early on. The language in which they receive Speech Therapy will be their L1. S/he will prefer talking to you in L1 and switches to L2 will be difficult. It is important to remember that speech itself is huge effort for those children and support them throughout the process. Still, if L2 is used consistently at home, those children will be able to use it conversationally and, if taught, read and write as well.

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