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Two or More Languages in Early Childhood: Some General Points and Practical Recommendations

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  • Harmonious Bilingualism Network

Abstract

In an increasingly diversified and multilingual world, more and more young children find themselves in an environment where more than one language is used. Similarly, with job changes that involve moving to different parts of the world, parents can feel overwhelmed by the linguistic demands on them and their children. What can parents expect of their children? Do parents have anything to contribute to the process of early language development? Does it confuse children to learn two or more languages at once? Do children have to be especially intelligent to be able to cope with more than one language? People everywhere have strong ideas about children growing up with a second or third language. These ideas influence how people interact with their children and how they look at other people's children. These ideas also influence how professionals such as teachers, doctors, and speech therapists advise parents of children growing up bilingually. Sadly, many ideas that people have about children growing up with a second or third language in childhood are not of any benefit to these children and may in fact have adverse effects. One of the purposes of this digest is to dispel some common myths about children growing up bilingually and to offer suggestions that can help children to become fluent users of two or more languages.
ERIC
®
DIGEST EDO-FL-99-03 • JULY 1999
Two or More Languages in
Early Childhood
Some General Points and Practical Recommendations
ANNICK DE HOUWER, UNIVERSITY OF ANTWERP AND SCIENCE FOUNDATION OF FLANDERS, BELGIUM
In an increasingly diversified and multilingual world, more and
more young children find themselves in an environment where
more than one language is used. Similarly, with job changes that
involve moving to different parts of the world, parents can feel
overwhelmed by the linguistic demands on them and their chil-
dren. What can parents expect of their children? Do parents have
anything to contribute to the process of early language develop-
ment? Does it confuse children to learn two or more languages at
once? Do children have to be especially intelligent to be able to
cope with more than one language?
People everywhere have strong ideas about children growing
up with a second or third language. These ideas influence how
people interact with their children and how they look at other
people’s children. These ideas also influence how professionals such
as teachers, doctors, and speech therapists advise parents of chil-
dren growing up bilingually. Sadly, many ideas that people have
about children growing up with a second or third language in child-
hood are not of any benefit to these children and may in fact have
adverse effects. One of the purposes of this digest is to dispel some
common myths about children growing up bilingually and to of-
fer suggestions that can help children to become fluent users of
two or more languages.
A bilingual environment is most often a necessity,
not a choice
Many discussions of the advantages or disadvantages of early
bilingualism seem to be based on the idea that a bilingual envi-
ronment is something that parents choose for their children. This,
however, is usually not the case; young children growing up bilin-
gually are for the most part doing so because there is no way that
they can grow up monolingually. For example, it may be the case
that the child interacts regularly with monolingual individuals,
some of whom speak one language (e.g., teachers and classmates
who speak only Italian), others of whom speak another (e.g., par-
ents who speak only French). Other children may grow up in a
community where most people speak the same two languages on
a day-to-day basis. The usage rules for these languages determine
when a particular language is spoken. Imposing changes in these
conventions so that all bilingual speakers in the child’s social world
would limit themselves to one and the same language in all cir-
cumstances is not only impossible but also ethically dubious, be-
cause it would infringe on individuals’ linguistic rights.
Hearing two or more languages in childhood is not a
cause of language disorder or language delay
All over the Western world, there are speech therapists and medi-
cal doctors who advise parents of young children growing up with
more than one language to stop using one of those languages with
their children. Typically, the language to be given up is the lan-
guage that is not used in the overall environment. For example,
speech therapists in the United States often suggest that parents
stop using Spanish at home in favor of English, while speech thera-
pists in Flanders may advise parents to stop speaking English in
favor of Dutch. The common reason for this advice is twofold.
First, it is often claimed that hearing two or more languages will
confuse the child and lead to grave problems in acquiring lan-
guage. Second, it is claimed that the acquisition of the main lan-
guage of the environment will stand a better chance without com-
petition from the other language. However, there is no scientific
evidence to date that hearing two or more languages leads to de-
lays or disorders in language acquisition. Many, many children
throughout the world grow up with two or more languages from
infancy without showing any signs of language delays or disor-
ders. These children provide visible proof that there is no causal
relationship between a bilingual environment and language learn-
ing problems. In addition, there is no scientific evidence that giv-
ing up one language automatically has a beneficial effect on the
other. In fact, the abrupt end of the use of the home language by a
child’s parents may lead to great emotional and psychological dif-
ficulties both for the parents and for the child. After all, language
is strongly linked to emotion, affect, and identity. A 3-year-old
whose mother suddenly stops talking to her in the language fa-
miliar to her, particularly if her mother does not respond to the
things she says to her in that language, may make the child feel
emotionally abandoned and totally lost. Speech therapists who
advise monolingualism should then not be surprised to find that
the child in question starts to exhibit troubling behavior. Should
the child recover from this traumatic experience, there is no evi-
dence that progress in the main language of the environment is
helped by the loss of the home language. In fact, it has been shown
in educational settings that building on a child’s skills in a first
language helps the acquisition of a second one.
Children’s use of two languages within one sentence
is not a sign of confusion
Often, it is claimed that small children who are learning to speak
two languages go through a stage of mixing and confusing the
two. The use of words from both languages in a single sentence is
cited as evidence that the child cannot distinguish between the
two languages, but in reality, this is not a sign of confusion. In
fact, it has been shown that the use of two languages in one sen-
tence by mature bilinguals reveals a great deal of linguistic skill
(Romaine, 1995). It is also true that, while young bilingual chil-
dren sometimes use words from two languages in the same sen-
tence, they produce far more sentences using only one language.
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This clearly shows that they are able to keep their languages
separate.
The question then becomes, in what circumstances do children
use words from both languages in the same sentence? They do it
only when talking to people that they know can understand both
languages and who do not get upset with them for using such
sentences. In other words, the social context in which children
find themselves determines whether and to what extent they use
more than one language in a single sentence. The same happens
with bilingual adults; they use words from two languages in the
same sentence only in sociolinguistic settings in which it is
appropriate.
Children do not just “pick up” a language: They need
a strongly supportive and rich environment
A prevailing idea is that it is very easy for children to learn a
new language and that hardly any effort is involved. However,
learning language, even one, is a process that takes many years.
Languages are very complex. To learn all their complexities, one
needs a lot of life experience. It may not take very long to learn
how to carry on a simple conversation (although it does take mono-
lingual children approximately 3 years before they can carry on
an intelligible conversation with strangers), but it takes a lot more
time to be able to develop the skill to give a formal speech. The
environment plays an important role in learning to speak. Chil-
dren learn to speak only when they hear people talk to them in
many different circumstances. Language development in the early
stages depends crucially on vocabulary knowledge. The more words
children know, the better they will learn to speak and the better
their chances of doing well in school. Book reading is an excellent
source of help in the acquisition of vocabulary. Book reading in
any language, even when a baby can hardly sit up yet, plays a
highly supportive role not only in the learning of language but
also in the emotional bonding between child and parent. Further-
more, it is an activity that is viewed in many cultures as appropri-
ate for both mothers and fathers to engage in, and it is an excel-
lent way of introducing children to aspects of culture that they
may not see in their local environment.
Recommendations for parents
Because language in the first 10 years of life is such an impor-
tant basis for the achievement of academic and social skills, it is
no luxury to reflect a little more on just what elements play an
important role in learning a language, whether it is one, two, or
more. Although it is not possible here to spell out all the things
that parents should consider when their child is in a situation
where he or she could learn to speak more than one language, the
brief list of pointers below offers some assistance. My advice to
parents would be not to stop at this brief article but to read some
of the material listed in the resource section. Investing in a child’s
bilingualism or multilingualism, after all, should yield a high re-
turn. Here are a few basic points that are important in raising chil-
dren with more than one language:
• Do what comes naturally to you and your family in terms of
which language(s) you use when, but make sure your children hear
both (or all three or four) languages frequently and in a variety of
circumstances. Create opportunities for your children to use all of
the languages they hear. Read books to and with your children in
each of the languages that are important to their lives.
• Talk to all your children in the same way—not, for instance,
using one language with the elder and another language with the
younger. Language is tied to emotions, and if you address your
children in different languages, some of your children may feel
excluded, which in turn might adversely affect their behavior.
• Avoid abrupt changes in how you talk to your children, espe-
cially when they are under 6. Don’t suddenly decide to speak French
to them if you have only been using English. In this respect, be-
ware of “experts” (e.g., doctors, teachers) who tell you to stop speak-
ing a particular language to your child.
• If you feel strongly about your children using one particular
language with you, encourage them to use it in all of their com-
munication with you. Try to discourage their use of another lan-
guage with you by asking them to repeat what they said in the
preferred language or by gently offering them the appropriate words
in the language you want them to use. It is no more cruel than
asking your child to say “please” before giving her a cookie.
• Do not make language an issue, and do not rebuke or punish
children for using or not using a particular language. If you feel
your child is not talking as he or she should in the preschool years,
have a hearing test done, even if teachers or doctors tell you that
bilingualism is the cause of any language delays. Whatever else,
follow your own intuition about what is best for you and your
family.
Reference
Romaine, S., (1995). Bilingualism (2nd ed). London: Blackwell.
Resources for Bilingual Families
Arnberg, L. (1987). Raising children bilingually: The pre-school years.
Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Bilingual Family Newsletter (BFN), Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Harding, E., & Reilly, P. (1987). The bilingual family. A handbook for
parents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Saunders, G. (1982). Bilingual children: Guidance for the family.
Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Saunders, G. (1988). Bilingual children: From birth to teens. Clevedon:
Multilingual Matters.
For information and subscriptions write to: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Bank House, 8a Hill, Clevedon, Avon BS21 7HH, Great Britain.
Resources on Bilingualism and Bilingual Acquisition
Baetens Beardsmore, H. (1986). Bilingualism: Basic principles.
Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
De Houwer, A. (1995). Bilingual language acquisition. In P. Fletcher
& B. MacWhinney (Eds.), Handbook of child language. London:
Blackwell.
De Houwer, A. (Ed.). (1998). Bilingual acquisition [special issue].
International Journal of Bilingualism, 2(3).
Hakuta, K. (1986). Mirror of language. The debate on bilingualism.
New York: Basic Books.
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This Digest is a revised version of an article that appeared in AILA News (volume 1, number 1),
the newsletter of the International Association of Applied Linguistics. It was prepared with a
very general audience in mind. The author invites discussion, questions, and comments from
anyone, but especially from colleagues who have carried out research on bilingual children.
Please write to Dr. Annick De Houwer, PSW—UIA, Universiteitsplein 1, 2610 Antwerpen,
Belgium.
This digest was prepared with funding from the U.S. Dept. of Education, Office of Educational
Research and Improvement, National Library of Education, under contract no. ED-99-CO-
0008. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of ED, OERI,
or NLE.
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Bilingual children: From birth to teens. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. For information and subscriptions write to: Multilingual Matters Ltd
  • G Saunders
Saunders, G. (1988). Bilingual children: From birth to teens. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. For information and subscriptions write to: Multilingual Matters Ltd. Bank House, 8a Hill, Clevedon, Avon BS21 7HH, Great Britain.
Bilingual acquisition [special issue
De Houwer, A. (Ed.). (1998). Bilingual acquisition [special issue]. "International Journal of Bilingualism, 2"(3).
Bilingual language acquisition Handbook of child language
  • De Houwer
De Houwer, A. (1995). Bilingual language acquisition. In P. Fletcher & B. MacWhinney (Eds.), Handbook of child language. London: Blackwell.