ERIC Identifier: ED433697 Publication Date: 1999-07-00
Author: De Houwer, Annick Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
Two or More Languages in Early Childhood: Some General Points
and Practical Recommendations. ERIC Digest.
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.
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 environment is
something that parents choose for their children. This, however, is usually not
the case; young children growing up bilingually 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., parents 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 circumstances is not only impossible but
also ethically dubious, because it would infringe on individuals' linguistic
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 medical 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
language 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 therapists 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 language. Second, it
is claimed that the acquisition of the main language of the environment will
stand a better chance without competition from the other language. However,
there is no scientific evidence to date that hearing two or more languages leads
to delays 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 disorders. These children provide visible proof that
there is no causal relationship between a bilingual environment and language
learning problems. In addition, there is no scientific evidence that giving 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 difficulties 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 familiar
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 evidence 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 sentence by mature bilinguals reveals a great deal
of linguistic skill (Romaine, 1995). It is also true that, while young bilingual
children sometimes use words from two languages in the same sentence, they
produce far more sentences using only one language. 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 monolingual 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. Children
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. Furthermore, it is an activity that is viewed in many
cultures as appropriate for both mothers and fathers to engage in, and it is an
excellent 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 important 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 return. Here are
a few basic points that are important in raising children 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, especially when they are under 6. Don't suddenly decide to speak
French to them if you have only been using English. In this respect, beware of "experts" (e.g., doctors, teachers) who tell you to stop speaking 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
communication with you. Try to discourage their use of another language 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
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:
Saunders, G. (1988). "Bilingual children: From birth to teens." Clevedon:
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:
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. 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
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