Bilingualism means speaking more than one language fluently. Some children speak a different language at home than they do at school or with their friends. This can make parents concerned about how their language skills will develop.
We’ve answered some common questions about bilingual children:
Is it good to speak more than one language?
Yes. Bilingualism helps children’s learning because it supports brain development. This will help bilingual children do well at school. They can learn other languages more easily and have more job opportunities in the future. They can communicate with more people in their community and overseas and understand different cultures.
Do bilingual children start to speak later than children who speak just one language?
No. But some children, whether bilingual or monolingual (speaking just one language), learn to speak later than others.
Should parents speak their mother tongue at home?
Yes. If children know their first language well, it will help them to learn English too.
Isn’t it better for parents to speak English instead?
No. It’s important that parents use the language they know best and feel most comfortable in. This is how they can help children develop language, talk about ideas and learn about the world. A child who develops good use of their mother tongue is more likely to develop good English.
Some parents find their children won’t speak their first language at home and insist on speaking English. What should they do about this?
Children quickly find out that English is the most powerful language in our society. They can pick up the message that other languages are less valuable. But it’s important to keep speaking your mother tongue at home. Children will understand what has been said and continue learning the language this way. Although it may be hard work to keep up the first language, it will be worth it when your child is older.
Some parents say they are not teaching their child their family's language because they want them to learn English first.
Many parents say this. It is important to remember that the younger a child is, the easier it is to learn a language. Many children feel left out in their families when everyone around them is speaking a language they cannot understand. Children in this situation also miss out on all the advantages of bilingualism.
Some children tell their parents not to speak their language to them in the school playground or in public.
Children can feel uncomfortable about anything that makes them feel different to their friends or peers. Encouraging them to feel proud of their language and culture may help. Talk to their teacher about celebrating your child's language skills within school too.
What about children who have speech problems and are seeing a speech therapist?
There is no evidence that bilingualism will make it harder for children with speech problems to develop speech. If the family stops speaking their language to a child who already has a speech problem, there is a possibility that the child will become even more isolated and unable to speak.
If a child is growing up with two languages and they sometimes mix them up, are they confused?
Children will use words that they know rather than not say anything at all. For instance, if a child knows the word for 'ice cream' in one language and not the other, they will use the word in the language they know. The child is not confused. They are simply making good use of the language they have.
- The best way to help your child learn to speak is to talk to them as much as possible in your own language.
- Have fun with rhymes, poems and songs in your own language, and tell your child stories too. Encourage them to join in.
- Try to find books written in your home language, or try making your own.
- Teach your child the names of the different languages they speak.
- If your child uses English words when they talk to you, repeat what they said in your language. This will help your child build their vocabulary in both languages.
Taken from Bilingual Children: A guide for parents and carers, written by Foufou Savitzky, London Language and Literacy Unit, South Bank University, 1994.