Raising your multilingual child: Debunking the myths and inconsistencies
The Netherlands is a country that welcomes a large number of immigrants and expats, making it a very culturally rich and diverse nation.
A part of this cultural diversity is the great variety of languages spoken. Language is an important form of cultural identity; a very essential part of our roots and who we are.
In this article I address the common myths and inconsistencies concerning raising multilingual children that I often discuss with my clients.
The terms bilingualism and multilingualism are often used interchangeably. This article will use the term multilingualism to refer to the ability to understand and communicate in two or more languages (5).
Is there a difference between monolingual and multilingual development?
Yes. The pattern of language development of multilingual children is different to that of their monolingual peers. It is important to note that it is more likely that a child may eventually be more proficient in one of their languages than the other (2).
Second language development can take one of two paths:
Commonly referred to as bilingualism or multilingualism, this requires exposure to more than one language beginning from birth or before three years of age.
This refers to the acquisition of another language after one language (the native/mother language) is well established. It is commonly referred to as "second language acquisition" (SLA).
An example of sequential learning of a second language is of children of families who migrate to a new country, where the child learns the new language at school.
Predictors of language-learning success
Successful acquisition of another language is not necessarily tied to age. There is very little evidence in research literature to support the popular notion of a "critical period" (1).
However, factors such as motivation, intensity of exposure, and the richness of the learning process are important in determining how language skills develop - regardless of whether your child is an infant, six or 20 years of age.
The "silent period"
The "silent period" is a language-learning phase observed in both children and adults. It has been suggested that this period of listening to a language before producing it is helpful in enabling the learner to hear the different sounds in the new language (1).
Young children may fall into a silent period because of the effort it costs them to learn the new language - it may be as difficult for them as it is for adults. Consider the teachers who report that multilinguals at schools are "silent" (and may mistake this for a delay or problem).
But such an intense learning experience can be overwhelming for the multilingual child, and some simply require time to learn to process the different languages.
By providing multilingual students with support, positive experiences and opportunities, parents and teachers can help them gain confidence and motivation in learning a new language.
Transfer between languages
When a multilingual speaker mixes their two (or more) languages in the same conversation, it is known as code switching and code mixing. Young language learners and adults both code switch. It is considered by linguists as a sign of language proficiency.
An example from a six-year-old boy (Spanish-, Dutch- and English-speaking) in one of my workshops: "Mira Papa, een kleine hondje..!"
Typically, developing multilinguals demonstrate a distinctive pattern of language development, and each language progresses differently. Read-more about this phenomenon here.
However, a recent research study by Charles Sturt University found that by four to five years of age, most multilingual children are able to speak to, and be understood by, people other than their family members. They are able to produce most of the sounds in the languages and combine them with the appropriate stresses or tones.
This indicates that multilinguals are not delayed in their language development compared to monolinguals.
Will raising my child multilingual cause language problems?
No. In a recent seminar I held for Eindhoven expats, a parent shared their concerns about raising their child with more than one language. Apparently, they were told to speak to their child in one language only (in this case Dutch) to avoid causing the child confusion and language difficulties.
Speech and language impairment is not caused by speaking more than one language. As Winter (2001) stated, "There is no reason why bilingualism should lead to a greater or lesser need for speech and language therapy" (5).
If a multilingual child does have a speech and/or language problem, the disorder and not the language(s) must be addressed.
Can children with speech and/or language difficulties learn a second language?
Children with low levels of ability, specific language impairment, hearing impairments or language delays are able to learn two spoken languages (2).
If your child has a speech and/or language delay, do not stop talking to them in your native language. Most importantly, consult a speech-language pathologist (SLP) to help you determine how to support and facilitate language learning in your child.
SLPs must provide families with support and well-evidenced information that takes into account each child’s unique strengths and needs. The Hanen Centre has an excellent article for families: Can Children with Language Impairment learn two languages?
There are many different types of "language-learning models". Which one is the best?
There is no "perfect" or "best" model, because language-learning is not a one-size-fits-all process.
The most popular model is the "one parent - one language" (OPOL) model. This model gained popularity in the 1930s (7) but there is weak research evidence to suggest that it is successful (8).
For successful language learning in your family, the key is to maintain experience in and exposure to both languages (9). Providing language opportunities through literacy-rich activities, such as through books and songs that motivate and engage your child, is key to helping him or her become multilingual. It is important to do what is natural to your family.
My multilingual child is being assessed. What should I be aware of?
SLPs need to take into account your child’s languages and evaluate their skills across both languages. A speech and language disorder must exist in both languages for it to be considered a speech and/or language problem.
The use of standardised assessments will also be difficult in accurately gauging multilingual children’s speech and language skills, as the norms and scoring of these assessments are standardised on monolingual children. You and your SLP will need to discuss alternative assessments or the use of an interpreter.
Charles Sturt University has developed a freely-available Intelligibility in Context Scale (ICS), a parent-report scale that has been translated into 60 languages (4). The ICS is a screening tool that helps SLPs working in multilingual settings to determine whether additional assessment is required.
A rewarding challenge
Whether multilingual children are acquiring their languages simultaneously or sequentially, it is such an enriching and valuable experience. It is a way for you to share with them their cultural roots, beliefs and values systems.
How a multilingual acquires their languages depends on many factors, but by providing families with resources and well-researched information, SLPs can empower parents so that they can make informed decisions that are the best fit for their family.
1. Second Language Learners and Understanding the Brain, Snow, E Catherine (pp 151-165) in The Languages of the Brain. Edited by Galabunda, M. Albert; Kosslyn, M Stephen and Christen, Yves. Harvard University Press, 2002
2. Working with Linguistically Diverse Families in Early Intervention: Misconceptions and Missed Opportunities. Moore, M. Susan and Perez-Mendez, Clara. In Semin Speech Language 2006; 27; 187-198
3. Enhancing Practice with Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Families: 6 Key Principles from the Field. Verdon, Sarah In Journal of Clinical Practice in Speech Language Pathology Vol 17, 1, 2015 pp 2-6
4. Intelligibility in Context Scale: A Parent Report Screening Tool Translated into 60 Languages. McLeod, Sharynne In Journal of Clinical Psycholgoy, Vol 17, 1, 2015, pp 7-12.
5. Resourcing SLPs to Work with Multilingual Children, McLeod, Sharynne in International Journal of Speech Language Pathology Vol 16, 3, 2014, pp208-218
6. Lexical access and vocabulary development in very young bilinguals. Poulin-Dubois, Diane; Bialystok, Ellen; Blaye, Agnes; Polonia, Alexandra; Yott, Jessica. In International Journal Billing, Vol 17 (1) 2013 pp 57-70