ParenTalk- Being Multiligual at Home- Yay or Nay?
Now and then, I come across parents worried about their child’s communication skills because they live in a bilingual family. People worry that they’d confuse their child who will suffer a speech delay or language disorder. 5 years ago, I was this parent. I was worried because my mother tongue is Hindi and that of my husband is Bengali. My sister-in-law and her husband spoke English to their child because they didn’t want to confuse the child with Tamil and Bengali, that are their respective mother tongues. It mattered little to them because they were settled in the UK. However, I didn’t want to follow this approach. It didn’t settle well with me that it will be difficult for my child to bond with the grandparents if we raised him with English as the only language. Research has also shown that learning the mother tongue is critical for a child’s comprehensive development. I read up more about bilingual language development and decided that we needed to follow the one person-one language approach.
At 5, my child can speak Hindi, Bengali, Odia, and English fluently. How Odia and English? His best friend, who is our neighbor, speaks Odia and he spends at least 1 hour with his family each day and none other than Peppa pig speaks English. He has no trouble switching between languages either. It works well for me because he can perfectly translate what grandma wants to say.
Here we have a multilingual child and I get a lot of questions about how I taught him the languages that even I don’t know. It was simple. My mother-in-law spoke to him in Bengali without trying to translate and we spoke in Hindi. Whenever he couldn’t understand a particular word, we’d explain it in the same language. Children are sponges and bilingual and multilingual households do not need to do anything specific to teach them the languages.
Benefits of multilingualism and bilingualism for children:
Studies have shown that bilingual preschoolers have a better understanding of other people’s perspectives, thoughts, and desires as compared to monolinguals. Research has also shown a positive effect of bilingualism on attention and task switching capabilities. They are also likely to get diverse career opportunities later.
Research has also shown that infants can differentiate between languages right from birth due to differences and sounds. Many people use this capability to teach them a foreign language in early childhood. However, children need to keep using the language or they may forget it.
Multilingual children may also have a better sense of self-worth and belonging because they can communicate with all family members and can enjoy diverse music and literature.
Benefits of multilingualism and bilingualism for families and communities:
Multilingual children can communicate better with their family members. This can foster valuable emotional connections. It also facilitates a better cultural understanding. Children are likely to grow up to be more tolerant to differences in culture and perspective.
Top tips to ensure bilingual children’s language development:
One person one language approach: This approach has been proven to work in bilingual and multilingual households. The idea is to speak consistently in one language to the child. Every adult can have a unique language that they use, but they need to be consistent with it. Switching languages will confuse the child. If you are wondering what language should parents speak to each other in, that doesn’t matter. Parents could speak to each other in a third language and that is ok.
Do not make speech corrections in the middle of a conversation: When a child in a bilingual family begins to talk, it is natural to mix up words, pronunciation, sentence structure, etc. It is ideal to not go about correcting mistakes in the middle of communication. This can cause communication insecurities. You can either talk about the mistake later or ignore it and let the child learn from consistent exposure. Another way is to correct subtly. For instance, if the child makes a pronunciation mistake when asking for something, you can hand over the object and say “here is the *correct pronunciation* for you.
Every adult must speak their language with the child everywhere: Suppose the mother speaks to the child in Bengali. She must speak to the child in Bengali even in the mall, playground, or a place where other people may not understand Bengali. A German author E.Montanari mentions in her book that changing the language of communication with the child in such situations may drive across the message that the native language is not as important and the parent is ashamed of speaking it publicly.
Language learning should not get stressful for the child: Remember, the child has just started learning. Exposure and consistency are the keys to bilingual children’s language development. Be patient with the child and do not scold, shame, or reprimand if they make mistakes. Scolding or correcting too often can affect confidence.
Read books in all languages: Reading to your child helps them immensely with their language development. In our house, we read English, Hindi, and Bengali books. If grandparents can read, it is a great way for them to bond with the child and also have the child learn their language. Multilingual audiobooks are also a great way to engage them when adults are busy. This also exposes children to diverse literature with cultural elements and broadens their perspectives.
Let not multilingualism compromise inclusivity: Parents in bilingual and multilingual setups must ensure that children do not use their language acumen to seclude people. If one adult doesn’t understand the language that you speak with the child, make them feel included by translating what you both just discussed.
Worries that cloud the minds of parents of bilingual and multilingual children:
Will my child learn English if we use only native languages at home: Apart from mixing languages and speech delays, most parents in bilingual families worry if their child will be able to grasp English when they go to school. It is important to remember that most of us picked up English at school despite coming from monolingual families. Just like the native languages, your child will pick English with ease if offered adequate exposure through communication and books. Even if you are not fluent in English, you can take help from audiobooks and tv shows to ensure they pick up the language well.
Will my child speak my language: This is common insecurity that most parents and grandparents have. They fear that the child will learn the other language better. While this is no competition, the more you expose the child to your language, the better they will pick it up. And yes, one person is enough to offer that exposure.
Do not worry if your child is born into a multilingual family, they will gradually learn all the languages and make you proud.
Smriti is a freelance content writer and an avid reader. She quit her 6 year-long IT career to embrace her love for writing. She writes content across genres and takes pride in her ability to research and carve magic with words. She passionately writes about parenting and is currently working on her book. When not writing or reading, she can be seen running behind any of her 2 kids or learning Deutsch.