Learning a second language

Does exposing young children to two languages interfere with their learning? In most cases, no. Sometimes it even helps

John Hoffman 0

Mich Ferguson, a bilingual mother of two in Hamilton, began speaking French exclusively at home when her daughter Crea was born. Crea’s dad is anglophone, so some of her earliest phrases were a mélange of the two languages. Her first sentence was “Regardes, Maman, un doggie!”

This sort of mixing is normal in bilingual preschoolers, says Krista Byers-Heinlein, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia, who does research in this area. “But it’s not out of confusion about which language is which,” she adds. “The issue is more that the preschooler doesn’t have full capacity in either language.” It was easier for Crea to come up with “doggie” than the French equivalent “chienchien,” which she probably didn’t know yet.

The idea of a tot learning two languages while also learning to think, talk and generally make sense of the world, might seem daunting to those of us in English-only communities or families. But young children manage it with relative ease. Here’s a look at how kids acquire two languages, how parents can keep the process smooth, and what not to worry about.
The myth of “one parent, one language”

Psychologist Ellen Bialystok, of York University in Toronto, says the notion that parents raising bilingual kids should stick to one language each is a pervasive misconception. “There is no evidence kids will become confused if a parent speaks to them in more than one language,” says Bialystok, who has researched the effect of bilingualism on child development.

Some parents stick with one language because they live in an English environment. “I spoke French to my kids at home because I was certain they would learn English no matter what,” says Ferguson. “When Crea was 2½, 90 percent of her words were French. Then, the summer she turned three, she had an English-speaking babysitter and suddenly went from hardly ever speaking English to speaking it fluently.”

Research supports Ferguson’s experience. “Learning language is about the amount of input a child gets, so if you want your child to learn French, she does need to hear it consistently in the home,” says Byers-Heinlein. “But parents don’t have to bend over backward to only ever speak one language.”

More or moins?

In general, bilingual children follow the same path in overall language development as monolingual children. Both groups start babbling and saying their first words around the same time. However, “bilingual children will show a slightly slower course of learning in both languages,” says Bialystok. For example, a bilingual two-year-old will not know as many words in a given language as her monolingual counterpart (though she’ll know more words in total). “But these differences are minor and they evaporate over time,” Bialystok says.

In fact, bilingual preschoolers do become adept at using both languages fairly quickly. Research by psychology professor Fred Genesee, at McGill University in Montreal, found that two- and three-year-olds will adjust their choice of language to mimic their conversation partner. For example, if during a play session in a lab setting, a researcher starts by speaking only English, then mixes in some French words, the child will follow suit.

As long as she has no learning disabilities, a bilingual child should learn to read just fine. Now in grade one at a French-language school, Crea is learning to read English without instruction, even as she is being taught to read French. “If a child is learning to read in two languages that both have alphabetic systems (in which letters make sounds), they actually get a bit of a boost,” says Bialystok. If they have to learn two different systems, say English plus a non-alphabetic language such as Chinese, there’s no boost. “But they learn to read English just as readily as monolingual children,” says Bialystok.

Is three a crowd?

In Canada, bilingual preschoolers are common — one in six kids under age five speaks more than one language (typically either English or French, plus the language of their family’s country or culture of origin). Adilia Bouglakova came to Canada from Russia 10 years ago and married Marcel Riou, a Canadian with a francophone father and anglophone mother. Their girls, Nikita, six, and Anastasia, two, are growing up with three languages.

“I spoke only Russian to Nikita until she was three,” says Bouglakova. “Marcel spoke to her mostly in English, but sometimes in French as well.” When Nikita started daycare, she stopped wanting to speak Russian. “So I would speak to her in Russian and she’d answer in English.”

Parents often ask Bialystok whether there is a point where kids can overload on languages. “I can’t say there is a limit on how many languages a child can learn, or some magic point where the machine crashes,” she says. “But if a child is learning three languages, there will be a cost at some point. Kids have only so many hours in the day to learn and only so many people to interact with.” Essentially, it’s up to you to pay attention. If your child seems stressed or is having language difficulties, it may be time to pull back on the third language.

In some circumstances, it may be hard for a child to learn even two languages at a time. According to Genesee, in order to become bilingual, a child needs to hear the second language a lot, preferably from someone at home. This isn’t easy if neither parent is competent in the second language. For example, a monolingual English family living in a French community on a short-term basis probably won’t produce a fully bilingual child.

Bottom line Preschoolers are quite capable of learning two languages at once. Though parents worry about not speaking one language enough or speaking it too much, “there is no recipe, no one answer that will be right for everyone,” says Bialystok. “Language in the home is not a school subject. It should be natural, happy and focused on communication.”

Ferguson is definitely focused on communication when warning 20-month-old Wren that something is too hot to touch. “Chaud!” she will say in her best authoritative mom voice. Wren will look at his mother and repeat, “’ot!”

Leave a comment