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Learning several languages

Parents of different languages: How to develop bilingualism in children? We often hear that children are like sponges and that they can easily learn any language when they are young. That’s true, as long as they are exposed to it frequently in a variety of contexts and are motivated to learn another language.

Language Development in Children Exposed to 2 Languages

The preschool period is conducive to language learning because of the adaptive capacity of the toddler’s brains. In addition, at an early age, children distinguish and reproduce sounds more easily. This allows them to speak a language without an accent.

However, some parents are concerned that learning more than one language may cause a language disorder in their child. This is not the case. Recent studies show that learning 2 or more languages does not cause language impairment, nor does it worsen language difficulties in children with language difficulties.

Thus, a child who has been frequently exposed to 2 languages since birth should say his first words at about 1 year of age and make word combinations (e.g. “dropped ball”) between 18 and 24 months of age. Similarly, a 5-year-old child who is exposed to 2 languages fluently will have language development similar to children who speak only one language.

However, it is quite common for a child who speaks two languages to have different strengths in each language. For example, he can produce better constructed sentences in one language and use more precise and richer vocabulary in the other language. The important thing is to consider all the sentences and words produced in both languages. This is how we can assess whether a bilingual child’s language development is normal, and not by assessing his or her language skills in only one language.

Moreover, the language best mastered at a given time may vary and change over time and depend on the context in which the child uses it and the people to whom it is spoken. Thus, a child may use and master one language better than another during a certain period of his life (e.g., home language at age 4) and become better in the second language during another period (e.g., in grade2 ).

Finally, it can happen that the child mixes the 2 languages in a sentence when he does not know the word he is looking for in the other language. This is a normal phenomenon that is also observed in bilingual adults. Therefore, it is not a cause for concern.

Normal signs in school-age children learning a second language

  • Confusion between the 2 languages.
  • Refusal to use the mother tongue at home (the language of instruction being associated with their new friendships and a desire not to appear different from others).
  • Decreased language skills in the mother tongue if it is not stimulated at home (language skills are therefore temporarily weak in both languages).
  • Large number of grammatical errors.

Source: Marguerite-Bourgeoys School Board

Newcomers and learning French

The most important thing to promote a child’s language development is to talk to him or her on a daily basis. For immigrant parents who speak little French, it is preferable that they speak to their child in their mother tongue. That way, they will probably be more inclined to talk with their toddler. In addition, the better the child’s command of the dominant language at home, the easier it will be for him to learn another language.

If they attend a French-language child care center, toddlers quickly realize that educators and other children don’t understand them when they speak in their first language. At first, they may speak very little or not at all for a short period of time.

Gradually, he begins to understand the words and then the phrases he hears. To make himself understood, he uses gestures, then words. Gradually, he is able to make short sentences, even if they are sometimes poorly constructed.

In general, a child is able to have a conversation like a child of his age after 1 to 3 years of regular and varied exposure to a new language. The same is observed when a child enters school without speaking French.

Factors influencing the learning of more than one language

Several factors influence the learning of 2 languages and the choice of the language spoken by the child: age, time of exposure to languages, the status of these languages in the country of adoption, etc. However, regardless of the context and environment in which the child is evolving, it is important that parents demonstrate a sense of pride and adopt a positive attitude towards the use of these languages. In this way, the child will be more interested in learning both languages.

On the other hand, it is also important to remember that bilingual children remain children first and foremost, with their own personality, needs and preferences, and that they can choose one language over the other, despite the wishes expressed by their loved ones.

How do you help a child learn a new language?

Reading stories to your child in the different languages around him/her is an effective and fun way to stimulate his/her language.

In order for a child to be fluent in two languages, they need to hear them often and have the opportunity to speak them. In some communities, such learning comes naturally if the languages in question are spoken as much as each other and if the child is in contact with different people in his or her family or circle of friends who speak one or both of them.

If one of the parents speaks French and the other speaks a minority language, it is important to increase the number of occasions when the child is exposed to the minority language. Adopting a positive attitude towards this language is necessary to promote learning because the toddler understands very early on that one of his languages is not widely used outside the home. Because they are naturally more exposed to the majority language, children develop less ability to express themselves in the minority language. This can lead to the child understanding the minority language, but not being able to speak it.

When both parents speak French, promoting bilingualism requires some planning and effort. They must then agree on strategies to encourage their child to learn another language. For example, supper is always in Spanish and the bath, in French or with Mommy, we speak French, and with Daddy, Spanish. On the other hand, it is preferable that parents do not mix languages in the same sentence when speaking to their child.

Tips to promote bilingualism in your child

  • Speak to your child in your native language. Use it also when you play with your child. You are a better role model for your child when you use the language you know best. Remember that it is much better to speak to your child in your mother tongue than to speak very little.
  • Develop a social network where both languages are used. Attending social gatherings, community events and other activities with people who speak each language allows your child to practice both languages and to understand that both are useful and valued.

Even if some of these solutions are not always possible, the important thing is to promote a balance between the two languages as early as possible.

  • Make sure that your child acquires a solid foundation in the minority language at a very early age by enrolling him or her, if possible, in an early childhood centre or kindergarten where it is the only language used or the main language.
  • Make a list of the services offered in the minority language (e.g. health professionals such as doctors or dentists, libraries, cinemas, community centres), and give priority to them. This will probably require long-term planning, and you may have to travel longer distances, but your efforts will benefit your child.
  • Expose your child to books, movies, music and TV or radio in both languages. These activities will strengthen your child’s language skills and appreciation of both cultures.
  • Visit family members who speak the minority language or receive them in your home. Visiting family members who speak the minority language or receiving them in your home. Visits to foreign countries or extended family members will also help them learn the language.

When to Worry?

If you feel that your child is behind in the language to which he or she has been most exposed since birth, see a speech-language pathologist.

If your child is learning a new language at the daycare centre, make an appointment with a speech therapist if he or she is speaking very little or not at all after several months of exposure or if he or she seems unable to communicate properly with those around him or her after 2 years of exposure to that language.

However, it is not necessary to speak to your child in only one language if he or she has a language delay. Research shows that speaking two languages should not make the child’s difficulties worse.

Resources and References

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  • KOHNERT, Kathryn. “Bilingual children with primary language impairment: issues, evidence and implications for clinical actions. J Commun Disord. J Commun Disord. 43(6) (Nov-Dec 2010), 456-473. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.go.
  • PARADIS, Johanne et al. Le développement langagier bilingue chez les enfants : incidence sur l’évaluation du trouble primaire du langage,” Fréquences : revue de l’ordre des orthophonistes et audiologistes du Québec. 17(3) (2005), p. 27-30.
  • THORDARDOTTIR, Elin. “Language Intervention from a Bilingual Mindset. The ASHA Leader. The ASHA Leader. August 15, 2006. www. asha.org/Publications