One of the biggest myths in the world of language development is that speaking more than one language causes late talking. The truth is that this couldn’t be further from the truth! Perhaps you have been having fears about using your home language(s) with your child, or maybe you have been advised by a healthcare professional to drop your mother tongue when talking to your child. If so, then this article is for you.
Let’s look at some facts and tackle some common questions to put the case for bilingualism into context.
1. Two thirds of children globally are brought up in bilingual environments (1)
If bilingualism indeed hindered language development, then we would certainly expect to also see 66% of children with a speech, language or communication need. The statistics however, do not match, with around 7% of children experiencing difficulties with their communication skills (2). Children are equipped to learn more than one language from birth – just look at your bi- or multilingual self as living proof!
2. Monolingual children also experience speech, language and communication difficulties meaning that being exposed to or speaking more than one language does not predispose children to a speech, language or communication difficulty.
3. The cognitive benefits associated with speaking more than one language have been widely documented. Some of these benefits include increased short term memory and improved attention and reasoning. The Alzheimers Society even found that bilingual adults have increased connectivity in certain areas of the brain that help to protect them from dementia. (3)
4. “It may not be a causal factor, but can it exacerbate my child’s difficulties?” Let’s break this one down:
Children learn a wealth of language and knowledge incidentally – i.e. as a result of overhearing conversation. By not speaking your home language with them, they have less chance of a) understanding those conversations and b) obtaining useful knowledge about the world around them.
It is better for your child to a hear a strong, fluent form of your home language, than a non-fluent or broken form of English. As long as they have strong language skills in a ‘foundation’ language, they will be able to map these skills onto learning English too.
5. “S/he only responds to me in English, should I just stop using my home language?”. Focus more on input and less on output. Give your child an opportunity to hear your home language, regardless of which language s/he chooses to respond in. Chances are, if they are exposed more to English in their environment (e.g. at nursery, out and about at shops, with other friends), then there is more of a social demand for them to use English, and English they will use. The most important thing for your child to do is continue to hear and build understanding of their home language. Let them absorb and store it all for when they are eventually ready to use it later in life.
6. Language is cultural identity. Your mother tongue is a reflection of your ethnicity and culture. It is important for your child to embrace this as part of their identity. It is also an incredible skill to have later in life; think communicating with other family members and career opportunities. Don’t forget, your child will learn English at nursery or school.
My Top Tips
1. Speak to your child in your home language(s) (if you hadn’t already gathered from the above!)
2. If you and your partner speak different languages, then each of you speak your own language to your child.
3. It is fine for your child to mix languages This is known as code-switching and is a natural part of bilingual language development.
4. Provide your child with ample opportunities to practice their different languages within natural, social contexts.
5. If possible, develop your child’s ability to sign and use gesture. This will support them to communicate their needs when entering an English-speaking nursery.
Remember, your bilingualism is an advantage, not a burden!