Raising a Child in a Bilingual or Multilingual Environment
Growing up in a bilingual or multilingual environment is the norm for those of us staying in countries like India. I may be speaking my mother tongue at home, talking to the shopkeeper in a local language but being taught lessons in English, at school.
So, what do we mean by bilingualism and multilingualism?
Bilingualism refers to using two languages well good proficiency and equal confidence. Multilingualism, on the other hand, refers to use of more than two languages with equally good skill and proficiency.
India and countries like Singapore, take bilingualism and multilingualism for granted; not realizing that several other countries across the world remain monolingual. A child growing in a monolingual country, such as France or parts of United States, would be exposed to only one language. Increasingly, a trend of learning a second language is emerging in these countries. This is usually later in life (be it middle school, during college or later).
Raising a child in a bilingual or multilingual environment can be advantageous, but the benefits are not always widely known. Therefore, several concerning questions may worry new parents. Let’s go over a few common questions:
Can my child suffer from language delay if raised in a bilingual or multilingual environment?
There is no evidence showing that a bilingual or multilingual environment can cause a delay in speech and language skills. Hearing more than one language does not delay learning of language (i.e. language acquisition). If the child is stimulated well in all the languages, it can only be beneficial for him/her. These children learn to focus better, listen to a variety of words and languages as well as have a larger combined vocabulary.
I want to use only one language with my child. Is that a good idea?
A child being raised in a multilingual environment will typically hear more than one language in his / her surroundings. Unless specified by physicians or language therapists, it is not advisable to limit the child’s interaction from several languages to one. As mentioned earlier, it can only be beneficial to have them listen to a variety of words and languages.
My child is being raised amongst several languages. What language should I speak at home?
It is recommended to talk to the child in the language that the family is using most often amongst themselves or is strongest in. This would typically be their mother tongue.
Across the globe, including urban India, a child’s parents may come from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. The parents would, therefore, have separate mother tongues. In this case, the language used between the parents can be used with the child. Additionally, for typically growing children each parent can choose to interact with the child using their mother tongue. This would expose the child to multiple languages from birth.
My child is mixing languages while speaking. Should I be concerned?
It is typical for children learning more than one language to mix and use words from the different languages during conversations or sentences (called ‘code-switching’). This may be misinterpreted as a child’s lack of proficiency in the languages or possible confusion in the languages. On the contrary, this natural phenomenon amongst bilinguals or multilinguals speaks volumes about the child’s ability to strategically use the languages and words from those languages to effectively convey meaning or even get attention!
My child has a speech and language delay. Do I speak to him in only one language?
For a child with speech and language delay, factors such as the diagnosis, amount of delay in speech and language (communication) skills– help understand whether the child should be spoken to in one language or not. A language therapist can guide a family, based on their needs, situation and the child’s communication skills.
In certain situations, such as huge delay in language due to severe or profound hearing loss, requires the family to focus on one language. This will assist the child to learn communication effectively and build a vocabulary.
Families of children with developmental delays such as Autism are being encouraged by experts, to allow their child to be exposed to a variety of languages (within a bilingual or multilingual environment). This does not limit them to one language while building a vocabulary and their communication skills.
My child with speech and language delays understands both languages spoken at home. He uses few words confidently. How do I encourage him to speak more?
Providing speech stimulation to the child on a regular basis is important. Talk about what he is seeing or trying to say. Since the child is in a bilingual environment, it will be helpful to stimulate the child in both languages. Let’s take a simple example here of a family using Hindi and English at home. A parent can talk to the child during routine tasks and ‘shadow’ one language with the other. ‘Close the door – Darwaja band karo’. This would provide the child with language and allow him to explore to say them without putting any undue pressure on him.
Remember to use simple sentences and words at first, to get the child to learn them ‘Come here- idhar aao’. Expanding on the sentences and words can be done as the child gains confidence in using them.
Be a model.
The child’s environment should be a model for use of language. If the child is to pick up new words (in one or two languages), he should hear other members of the family using them also.
Use similar or same phrases as often as possible in different situations. This will allow the child to hear the same phrases and words often- providing a lot of stimulation. ‘Close door / Darwaja band karo, close window / khidki band karo, close book / kithab band karo etc.’
Praise the child for smaller successes.
Encouragement through praise can be quite effective for a child learning to speak. A hurrah or a high five for any new word can provide the child with confidence to use the word(s) often.
Read to the child.
Reading together is an effective way to build language(s). Describing picture in a picture book, reading out a short story while using both languages can be a fun way to learn and encourage repetition of words.
Have more questions about multilingualism or bilingualism? Write to us and talk to our speech therapists.
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