Raising your child in a multilingual setting can be confusing, with lots of conflicting advice about what language you should speak to your child in.
Sometimes there can be pressure from others in your child’s life to focus on the majority language of the country you are living in. You may be concerned about your child’s future and what language they will need to use as they get older. Confusion can lead to concern if your child then appears to be slow to develop speech or is struggling with school.
Thankfully, the evidence shows us that there are no negative effects on a child’s development due to being exposed to several languages. Instead, there are many advantages to being able to speak several languages.
Advantages of multilingualism
If you have had to study a second language for the work you are doing, you will not need much convincing of the advantages of your child learning a second (or third!) language and the opportunities this leads to for work, travel and mission. Knowing the language can help your child understand their family culture or the culture of the new country they are living in. Multilingualism develops your child’s skills in language learning and makes learning additional languages easier. There is also some evidence that multilingualism can help improve creative thinking, problem solving and help children express themselves fully.
It is important to remember that if you chose to stop speaking a language with your child when they are young that this is an irreversible step. Your child will no longer learn that language without significant exposure and may need to go on to learn it again in the future.
In most of the world, multilingualism is the norm and children routinely grow up with more than one language in their environment.
Types of multilingualism
There are 2 main ways children become multilingual.
This is when the child is exposed to more than one language from birth. This typically happens when either one or both parents have a different first language than the language they speak with their spouse, leading to two, three (or even more!) languages being known in the home. This child does not have a ‘first’ or ‘second’ language but may show different levels of skills in these languages depending on how much exposure they have had to each one or for what reasons they use that language. For example, they may be able to speak a language fluently but are unable to write in it.
Sometimes the advice given is that each parent should only speak to the child in their own first language. However, this is not always practical, especially if this is not a language shared by the parents! Rather, it is important the child is getting good quality, frequent models of all the languages spoken by their parents in meaningful situations. It is important for parents to plan opportunities for their child to be exposed to each home language throughout the day.
Sometimes children who are simultaneously bilingual may be a little slower to speak than their monolingual peers but they should still develop language skills within the typical range (using their first words before they are two).
This is when children develop one language and then another, typically learning the new language outside the home once they start school or nursery. Some children may go through a ‘silent period’ when they are first exposed to a new language environment, which usually only lasts a few months before they start communicating in the new language.
The evidence for children who are learning English as a second language in this way has shown us it can take up to two years to develop social English. However, it can take up to ten years to fully develop the academic English language skills needed for education. This may mean initially your child may take more time to reach the academic standard that you would expect they would achieve in their home language. However in time, and with motivation and support, they can achieve success and even perform better than monolinguals in national tests. This will be more difficult for older children who will be expected to master proficiency of a new language much quicker to access their learning. Children older than eight, in particular, would benefit from being taught the language explicitly, rather than just through exposure.
It is helpful to think about ways to support your child if there are long periods of time where they are not getting regular input from a native speaker in one of their languages, as young children in particular require continued exposure in all languages to maintain their multilingual competence. Some ideas of how to do this could include reading books together in that language, watching videos in that language or video call with school friends.
Although it may feel very difficult now, your child will be developing skills that will equip them for life.
- When possible, speak to your child in the language you are strongest in. Giving your child the best language model you possibly can will help develop the pathways in the brain for language learning. Speaking to them in a language in which you are not fluent may have a negative impact on language learning. For example, you may be less likely to make comments about things happening around you or you may use incorrect grammatical structures. However, don’t be afraid to speak another language in front of your child; it is good to show your child it is OK to use all their languages and it is OK to make mistakes when learning language!
- Your child’s first language provides the best foundation for learning additional languages and new concepts. Continuing to develop your child’s home language will allow them to develop concepts and reasoning required for learning, independent of their second language learning.
- Using a language consistently, regularly and in quality interactions is the best way for your child to learn it from you. Make sure your child is regularly exposed to the languages you are wanting them to learn. If there are several languages being spoken in the home make sure there are times to focus on each one.
- We know that children learn language best when you are talking about something that they are interested in, in contexts that are meaningful to their life, and during play. Talk about what you are doing together, read books and sing songs together; talk about what they did during the day.
- Try and use language at a similar level to what your child is using. Teach them new word combinations by introducing a new word or idea to build on what they’ve said.
- Playdates with other children are great opportunities for your child to continue to develop their skills in another language. Other children will provide good language models and also give your child helpful motivation and reasons to learn new vocabulary.
- Discussing what your child is learning at school in your home language is important so your child learns the words for academic subjects in that language too. Some children will prefer to use the language of school for some vocabulary e.g. colours and numbers. You don’t need to correct your child but instead say the words in your home language for your child to learn.
- Don’t be worried if your child mixes words from different languages. This is very common when a child is learning two languages at the same time. Your child will gradually begin to separate the two languages; many can start sorting this by two years old. The age and speed at which they do this varies greatly. Some ‘code-switching’ in different situations is normal, particularly if they haven’t encountered that word in all their languages yet.
- Remember that, in most of the world, multilingualism is the norm and children routinely grow up with more than one language in their environment. When your child is struggling with schooling because of being in a multilingual setting, keep in mind that, although it may feel very difficult now, your child will be developing skills that will equip them for life.