Speaking two languages fluently is what we all dream of and many children here achieve it apparently effortlessly, but is it really that easy for children and their parents to adapt to these skills?
Ask any British parent of a young child living over here what they like most about their move to Spain and you can almost guarantee they will mention their child’s bilingual abilities.
There is no doubt that having fluency in a second language is a great tool for later life and increasingly anyone wanting to find a decent job in this area will stand very little chance unless they speak at least two languages. But living in a bilingual world isn’t all sunshine for these children. There are pressures on them from their parents to keep up their English at the same time as they grapple at school with not only Spanish but in many cases Valencian as well.
Likewise there are difficulties for the parents who may not speak their child’s ‘second’ language or may insist that one or other language is spoken by the child at various times. Some parents also believe that learning two languages in parallel will slow down their children’s linguistic development. 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 them with their children. Typically, the language to be given up is the one 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 favour of English, while those in Flanders may advise parents to stop speaking English in favour of Dutch.
The common reasons for this advice are that it is often claimed that hearing two or more idioms will confuse the child and lead to grave problems in acquiring language. Secondly, it is claimed that the acquisition of the mother tongue of the country will stand a better chance without competition from the other one. However, there is no scientific evidence to date that hearing two or more languages leads to delays or disorders in learning different tongues. Many, many children throughout the world grow up with two or more languages from infancy without showing any slowness in learning them. Children who are learning two languages from infancy frequently mix up their words in a sentence and this is often seen as a worrying sign. Experts now say there is no need to worry as this is all part of the language acquisition process. Studies have shown that infants only mix languages when talking to people that they know can understand both of them 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. Kathy Harris, a mother of two children who attend Spanish schools, says that she has always chosen English as the preferred language at home even though the children’s father is Spanish. She said: ‘I figure that they spend all day in a Spanish environment and so when they come home at night I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask them to speak English. ‘Sometimes they play amongst themselves in Spanish but mostly they just switch back to my mother language. ‘When they were at a Spanish nursery they would come home talking Spanish and sometimes mixing in English words but I just continued to talk to them in English even if they spoke Spanish to me.’
Rita Thurrock, who has a 13-year-old boy, says that she has no problem with her child’s grasp of both English and Spanish but that she was startled to learn how far behind he was in reading and writing English. She said: ‘Because he had been taught it as a second language he can write it a bit but it’s all phonetically spelt, like Spanish.’ He now has classes outside school to get his English up to scratch. She said: ‘I worry that without it he will be very limited in his employment when he leaves school.’
How do children learn two languages at once? Children do not just ‘pick up’ a language: They need a strongly supportive and rich environment for them to be able to put together the mental tools to make it work. The more situations in which they hear both languages the quicker they will pick them up. A prevailing idea is that it is very easy for children to learn a new language and that hardly any effort is involved. But this is not the case, as anyone who has tried to learn Spanish will know. Learning a 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 but it takes a lot more time to be able to develop the skill to give a formal speech. The environment in which the child is exposed to language plays an important role in learning to speak as 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 in the learning of language.
How can parents help? 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 you use when, but make sure your children hear both 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. Do not, for instance, use 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 behaviour.
Avoid abrupt changes in how you talk to your children, especially when they are under six. Don’t suddenly decide to speak Spanish to them if you have only been using English. In this respect, beware of ‘experts’ 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 one you want them to use. It is no more cruel than asking your child to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.
Do not make language an issue, and do not chastise or punish children for using or not using a particular idiom. 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 family.