Raising Multilingual Kids

As a speech pathologist, I see many families who use languages other than English at home. Australia’s linguistic landscape is increasingly diverse, and this is a fabulous asset to our country. But I’ve also heard the concerns of parents who have more than one language regarding the impact of this environment on their child’s language development. Will hearing two languages confuse my child? Is it better to only speak English? Should one parent speak one language, and another parent speak the other? We have the answers.

Parents should speak their native language with their children

When learning to talk and listen, it is always best to be exposed to a complete model of a language. This means that speaking your native language, or the language you are most fluent in will be better than using an incomplete or broken model of a language. Speaking broken English may be harmful during those early years of language development.

Every family is different

When it comes to raising children to speak more than one language, there isn’t a recipe of the best way to do it that applies equally to everyone. One home may have grandparents that don’t speak English but may have multiple other languages that they use, and another home may have cultural influences which impact the way adults and children talk to each other.

Many children from multilingual families speak English at day care and at school. Having siblings can also impact the amount of English they use, and therefore their proficiency in their other languages. All of these influences mean that every multilingual family is different, and these children can have varying competencies in their language skills.

Won’t speaking two languages confuse my child?

Not at all! Children are very clever.

From infancy, we are able to tell the difference between two languages, and simultaneously learn to speak and understand them separately. Of course you may have noticed what we call ‘code switching’, where children mix up words from two languages when they speak. It’s all part of the learning process.

There is also no evidence to support the idea that one parent should speak the native language and the other should speak English. Children are able to tell the difference between languages, and switching between the two won’t stop them from acquiring both.

It takes longer to learn two languages

We know that children who are learning two languages sit slightly behind children who are only learning one. If their languages are tested separately, vocabulary and grammar looks slightly behind that of monolingual children. Interestingly, their speech sounds and narrative skills look closer the levels of monolingual children. Additionally, their ability to understand may be a lot stronger than their ability to use language.

With this in mind, learning two languages at the same time doesn’t mean a child will have a language delay. Their development may just look slightly different to their monolingual peers.

For example, a child who is exposed to English at school may know lots of words for school things in English but not in their home language. Simultaneously, they may know lots of words to do with family and home activities in their home language, but not so much in English. They also may be able to understand very well, but not be able to speak as well as they understand.

What is important is making sure the child is exposed to high quality, continuous language in order for their grammar to catch up to their monolingual peers.

The more you hear, the more you learn

The amount of exposure a child receives in a language is linked to how quickly they pick it up. It’s important that the exposure is high quality, consistent and continuous.

It’s also important that language is interactive. Playing and reading books with a fluent speaker gives a child much richer language input than anything they can learn off a screen. Hearing the language from a variety of people can also influence their development, and expose them to a broader vocabulary.

When it comes down to it…

…there’s no ‘one size fits all’ for raising multilingual children.

It can be hugely beneficial for a child to learn the language of their parents. It’s also very important for children to have strong English skills before they start school, and can be difficult for families who don’t speak English as a first language.

The most important thing to keep in mind parents should use their native language, or the language they are most proficient in when speaking to their children. Additionally, it is beneficial for children to be exposed to fluent English speakers outside the home in those early years before they go to school. This exposure should ideally be varied, rich, and spoken by native speakers. 

A speech pathologist can help your child develop the language, speech and pragmatic skills they need to thrive. If you feel your child needs assistance then book in a consultation with one of Optimum’s speech pathologists today!

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