Photo by Shonali
Whilst growing up little did I know that one day I would formally learn about my multilingual behaviour as a studied science. Therefore, when I was learning about ‘language mixing’, ‘code switching’ or the ‘silent period’ in bilinguals during my training to be a Speech and Language Therapist (SLT), my interest knew no bounds as I could relate to them so well.
WHAT IS BILINGUALISM AND MULTILINGUALISM?
A person who is exposed to and uses two different languages in everyday speaking situations is described as a bilingual. A ‘multilingual’ is a person who is using more than two different languages. In India for example, where I come from, people are commonly multilinguals who speak in their mother tongue (native to the state they originally come from), in Hindi the national language of India and in English, a residual language of British colonization. In addition to that, people may also pick up the languages of the other states they reside in due to work, inter-state marriages etc. In this article, I have used the terms bilingualism and multilingualism almost interchangeably, barring a few instances (which will be evident to you as you read) demanding terminological precision.
BILINGUALISM- MYTHS AND FACTS
People may have misconceptions about the impact of bilingualism on the language development of a child. During my early days in the UK, when my first born went to nursery, her teacher advised the parents of bilingual children to use their home language with their children. I was ecstatic! Until then no professional in my entire life had encouraged the use of my native language. I went to an English medium school in India and I grew up being told off at school if we were caught speaking in our native language so much so that during those times, we almost felt apologetic about our mother tongue. Later in life, as a speech and language therapy (SaLT) student, the various facts which I learnt about bilingualism and its benefits, gave me a sense of pride to know more than one language, a privilege, which I took for granted before. Now, as a therapist I know what my daughter’s teacher meant when she said that speaking in multiple languages makes children “smart”!
Here I share some common myths about bilingualism/multilingualism and the facts as evidenced by research:
MYTH: Learning two or more languages at the same time can negatively impact a child’s language development and can cause speech problems or stammering.
As a SLT in the UK, I come across bilingual parents who do not speak to their child in their home language. They worry that encouraging their child to speak in their home language will inhibit their ability to learn English efficiently. This is a common misperception. There is no evidence which suggests that learning one language inhibits the growth of the other. On the contrary, research shows that a strong foundation language helps become a scaffolding to a child’s ability to learn other languages, for then, the new language can map on to the foundation language and the child can transfer the language learning skills from one language to the other. There is also no evidence to suggest that learning more than one language causes stammering or other speech problems.
MYTH: Mixing more than one language in a sentence by a bilingual child is a sign of confusion.
Mixing languages is normal in bilingual children and is not a sign of confusion. Alternating between two or more languages by bilinguals/multilinguals in a single conversation without compromising the rules of each language is called code-switching. Research shows that codeswitched utterances produced by young bilingual children are a very complex mechanism. My lingua melting pot consists of 5 languages and two dialects of Bangla. English, Bangla and Hindi being the more dominant ones and amongst them English being the most dominant as I pursued my academic learning in English. My social conversational language can adapt to the needs of my environment. When I’m conversing with people from a similar background as mine such as with my childhood friends, some or all of the 5 languages may appear in an expression. Look at the sample example below (I’ve used the English script for all the languages here):
Ish ki aar bolbo yaar, bahut hol…bhar mein jaye the cleaning and tidying. Lah thait! (Bangla, Hindi, Assamese, English, Khasi).
Translated: (‘Ish’ is a non-word expression in Bangla that can mean a multitude of expressions from positive to negative, much like ‘oh’) What do I say buddy, I’ve had enough…to hell with the cleaning and tidying. I’m tired!
The sample mixes language in such a way that each language adapts to fit into the expression to make complete sense yet perfectly retains the language rule and grammatical structure of each language. The only time I use one language purely is in my professional life and with native English speakers in the UK.
FACT: Being bilingual has cognitive benefits
It takes no rocket science knowledge to understand that a bilingual’s brain would have cognitive advantages because it is processing two or more languages at the same time. Studies have shown bilingual individuals to perform better than their monolingual counterparts at executive functioning tasks of the brain such as switching between tasks and attention/inhibition to stimuli. This relates to the increased neural activation in bilinguals when using both languages and having to regulate the competing languages in the brain constantly to meet the language demands of a situation. Furthermore, another recent Tokyo-based study established that the brain activation of multilinguals is much more sensitive and a lot faster than bilinguals. Needless to say, when it comes to language, ‘more the merrier’!
MYTH: Bilingualism has a negative impact on a child’s academic progress
In fact, it’s the contrary! According to research bilingual children perform better academically than their monolingual peers due to the cognitive benefits of bilingualism as explained in the above section.
MYTH: The language acquisition milestones are same for all languages
Research shows that phonetic acquisition by English speaking children is complete by 7 years, whereas for Maltese speaking children by 3;11 and for German speakers by 4;11. Moreover, English is a less linear and transparent language with regards to its morphology than many other languages making it relatively difficult and longer to master than other more transparent languages such as Tamil or Turkish.
In my personal experience as a therapist, I’ve observed even older children without language difficulties struggle with the irregular aspects of the English language when speaking or reading, which is not so commonly seen in children speaking their native languages in India. Majority of languages in India are also phonetic i.e., they are pronounced as they are read or they are written as they are heard. English is not a phonetic language and that is why children, more so those with language difficulties, struggle with the language. More often than not, so as to reduce the barriers for those with language difficulties, I have this wishful thinking of the English language being revamped to a more regular and phonetic language!
FACT: Bilingual children may go through a ‘silent period’.
When a child is exposed to a new environment where the language used is other than the child’s home language, it is normal for the child to go through a ‘silent period’ during their second language acquisition. Again, I can give a first-hand account of this as a mum. My brimming-with-attitude second born, didn’t utter a sound for days on end in her pre-school. Her key-worker was slightly concerned and asked me if I would like my daughter to be reviewed by a specialist. Although, back then I had no idea of a phenomenon called ‘silent period’, having worked as a developmental therapist, I had knowledge of child development. My daughter was a chatty little monster at home and knowing her over cautious personality, I was confident that she was going through a transitory phase of absorbing the new language and would talk when she was confident enough. And she did. After six months!
MYTH: Bilinguals/multilinguals will always have the same level of competency or skills in each language.
Language competency is a dynamic process. Let me explain with a personal example. I’ve been exposed to my mother tongue Bangla since birth, however, my level of competency in Bangla is highly dependent on the context and content. I use Bangla only socially i.e., informally at home with my friends and family. Moreover, coming from a probashi (migrant) Sylheti community in a predominantly non-Bengali place Shillong, my Bangla is an eclectic mix of all the languages and dialects I was exposed to. It’s not with pride I say that I struggle to use pure Bangla in complex contexts. For example, to explain things related to my profession, I’ll mix English words, phrases and expressions in my Bangla expression. On the other hand, although English is my second language, it is my academic language and the only language I can use purely both socially and academically.
Language competency also depends on the frequency of use. Having grown up in Shillong, like most Indians, I could somewhat speak in Hindi, however, my Hindi was what I picked up from watching Hindi movies and from the Bangla and Khasi mix of Hindi what was called the baazari Hindi (essentially, the version of broken Hindi exchanged between the different language speaking communities in the streets/markets). Later on, when I lived in Delhi for two years whilst training to be a developmental therapist, my Hindi speaking ability soared significantly which surprised my own self. Currently, my competency in Hindi is at its lowest due to non-use. In the past, I was also proficient in reading Bangla, however, after school, I pursued my higher education only in English and over time without realising, I lost my ability to read Bangla as well as I used to. However, lately, I’ve started to pay more attention to my mother tongue and much to my excitement, my Bangla proficiency is slowly picking up. A common proverb we SLTs like to use is ‘use it or lose it!’.
WHEN SHOULD YOU WORRY? – THE RED FLAGS
For anyone learning an additional language, it generally takes about 2 years to acquire the basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS)- using the language socially, describing needs etc. It takes up to 5-7 years to attain the cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) in the additional language- literacy and numeracy skills, language for complex cognitive and academic learning etc. When parents concerned about their bilingual child’s language development take their child to a SLT for a consultation, the SLT will assess the child to differentiate between the normal features of learning an additional language and difficulties affecting all language learning. Presence of the common features of learning an additional language, (e.g., mixing language, silent period, limited vocabulary in the new language, developmental stages of learning an additional language) are nothing to worry about and the child will overcome these features with time.
So, parents might wonder what could be the red flags to look out for? Generally, when a child is also having difficulty in their home language or first language and the difficulties are present across both (or all) of the languages they are exposed to, it would be a sign of concern and could indicate that the child has underlying language needs which will benefit from SaLT intervention. Speech, language and communication disorders can be associated with developmental or acquired conditions (e.g., Autism, Down syndrome, learning disability, developmental verbal dyspraxia, cerebral palsy, cleft palate, hearing loss, traumatic brain injury) or may also not be associated with a known condition (e.g., Developmental Language Disorder).
I would like to share some professional advice for bilingual and multilingual parents:
- It is important that you continue to use all languages introduced to your child. Speak in the language you are fluent in and feel most comfortable in. This will provide a good language model to your child to learn from.
- It is important that children continue to use their mother tongue at home. Research shows that once children start nursery or school and begins to learn English or a second language, it is easy for them to lose their first language, as English/the additional language can easily take over.
- Do not worry when your child mixes different languages in one sentence. Mixing languages is natural for a bilingual/multilingual speaker.
- Continue speaking to your child in your chosen language/s even if they speak back to you in a different language.
- In a family where more than one languages are spoken, each parent could choose to speak to their child in their own language/the language their are fluent in and stick to it. This will provide a good language model to your child and help them learn the different languages easily.
- Provide your child with a language-rich environment in both/all languages and opportunities to learn the languages in various contexts (e.g., in play activities, daily routine activities, books, bedtime stories, nursery rhymes/songs, TV programmes, movies, interacting with family and peers).
Languages must be celebrated. A culture can be understood in its entirety only through its language. Knowledge of more than one language expands our social boundaries and helps us know about other cultures. Particularly, for children who are growing up away from their native countries and communities, being able to communicate with grandparents, relatives and other members of their community in their mother tongue promotes connection with and pride about their own roots, thereby reducing alienation from their native culture. This helps strengthen their sense of identity. When it comes to learning languages, less is therefore, far from being more!
London SIG Bilingualism, S. Shah April 2016
RCSLT (Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists): https://www.rcslt.org/
ASHA (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association): https://www.asha.org/
Tokyo University (2021, April 1). Multilingual People Have an Advantage Over Those Fluent in Only Two Languages. Neuroscience News. Retrieved from https://neurosciencenews.com/multilingual-brain-activation-18166/
Asifa Sultana (December, 2016). Morphological development of Bangla-speaking children: A pilot study. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/321579252_Morphological_development_of_Bangla-speaking_children_A_pilot_study