The children of parents who speak different languages have been said to be the world’s only “true” bilinguals. Aaron Gray-Block reports.
Many experts agree that when parents speak different languages, the best method is for each parent to speak their natural language to the child from birth.
Two languages from birth
And according to the co-ordinator of the English as a Second Language programme at the American International School of Rotterdam, Fred Turner, children who are taught two languages from birth are the only true bilinguals.
“They don’t differentiate between the languages,” Turner says.
“One parent speaks one language and one parent speaks another, that’s all.”
Turner says that children can quite easily handle more than one language. A child’s key to understanding them lies in the comparisons between them.
“They have a greater palate by comparing two languages,” he says.
Learning two distinct languages
Meaning, children will have a greater understanding of the intricacy of language after comparing grammar, sentence structure and word usage of two distinct languages.
And the benefits of this form of bilingualism need not be underestimated, Turner says, particularly in regards job opportunities and linguistic abilities.
But a danger to be aware of is when children start to “code-mix” rather then “code-switch” between languages.
Turner says that inserting a Dutch word into an English sentence is fine and is considered quite a normal code-switch, for example, inserting “gezellig” into an English sentence about a quiet evening at home.
But if children start to add the Dutch prefix of “ge” to certain English words, it means they were starting to confuse the two languages and are not learning them properly.
Code-switching among children
English-speaking David Davis, who speaks English to his two daughters while his wife Angelique speaks her native Dutch, has found that his eldest daughter does not often code-switch.
David says his older daughter, who turns three in October, speaks Dutch more often than she does English, something he attributes to the ‘immersion factor’.
“She is starting to speak English with me,” David says.
“But she has more exposure to Dutch.”
Though they speak two languages in the home, if David speaks English to his wife Angelique, she will often reply in Dutch, which poses problems when he wishes his oldest daughter to speak English.
David will often ask his daughter to speak English and though she understands what he says, she will imitate her mother and cheekily reply: “Nee, ik spreek Nederlands”.
The distinction between the two languages was defined early on, when both parents would say to the child that either “mama” spoke Dutch or that “papa” spoke English.
There is very little mixing of the two languages, David says, and he believes the two languages assist in Danique’s learning.
He says he can push his daughter harder, that she can “take more in” and that the left and right-side of her brain develop more quickly.
“It definitely helps her develop,” he says.
They also sit down and watch TV shows such as Sesame Straat together, but David believes watching it in its native English is better than watching it in Dutch.
“It is better in its original language,” he says.
One person, one language
What David and Angelique have embarked upon and what Turner also describes is commonly referred to as the “one person, one language” method of teaching bilingualism.
In the university text “Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism”, author Colin Baker elaborates in greater depth upon this theory.
Baker writes that the “one person, one language” method was not the only path of child bilingualism and suggests that a second language can also be learned on the streets, such as Italian migrant children learning English in the US from their neighbourhood friends.
But the other distinct method of teaching bilingualism to a child is “sequential learning”, where a child first acquires one language and later becomes proficient in a second. Many experts recommend the age of three as being a good line of demarcation.
Simultaneous teaching is usually preferred, but sequential learning can also be used when one of the languages is considered a minor language, such as grandparents speaking Cantonese to a grandchild in a predominantly English-speaking society.
But as Baker writes, “in early childhood, becoming bilingual is often an unconscious event, as a natural as learning to walk and ride a bicycle”.
Baker also suggests that a bilingual person has increased meta-linguistic abilities, which stems from their enhanced analysing and knowledge of language and their greater control of internal language processing.
In turn, this may facilitate early reading acquisition that, in turn, can lead to higher levels of academic achievement.
In fact, Baker lists several broad advantages for children becoming bilingual, such as a greater array of experiences in language, culture and life, the possibility that children might become more flexible in their thinking and that some cognitive advantages can also be obtained.
Baker forthrightly dismisses and quotes other studies that reject earlier hypotheses that suggest bilingual children are disadvantaged.
Quite the contrary, Baker says, and though more research is yet to be done, the results seem quite encouraging.
And as Turner says, for the children of parents who speak two languages, learning to speak both of them is part of who they are.
Aaron Grat-Block / Expatica