Five key questions on Bilingualism answered by the experts

grosjean
You may already be familiar with François Grosjean, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. He’s one of the world’s most respected authorities on Bilingualism.

Here are five key questions Grosjean posed on the Psychology Today website last year in an article entitled Planned Bilingualism:

1. When should the languages be acquired?
2. Which bilingual strategy should be used?
3. Will the child have a real need for each language?
4. What will be the type and amount of input from each language?
5. What other support can parents count on?

We thought it would be great to ask other experts in the field for their own answers to these questions!

First, meet the experts:

bilingual_experts_speekee

From left to right:

Ann Morris, Bilingual Children’s Author: Website / Facebook / LinkedIn
Cheryl Sánchez, The Bilingual Bookshop: Website / Facebook / Twitter
María Babin, Trilingual Mama: Website / Facebook / Twitter
Rita Rosenback, Multilingual Parenting: Website / Facebook / Twitter

Now their answers:

1. When should the languages be acquired? 

María Babin
As early as possible, but it is never too late! The ideal time is when children are babes as parents and children can create strong emotional bonds in the language. In addition, from infancy to about 8 years old, children’s brains are programmed to acquire languages. From 8-12 years old this programming or facility to acquire languages begins to diminish and by the time children reach puberty, they acquire languages in an entirely different way – more the way adults do. However, it is never too late to introduce a new language and to work towards different levels of proficiency.

Rita Rosenback
Languages can be learnt at any age, don’t ever think you have missed the boat! With children, it is generally better to start as early as possible – a child who learns a language before the age of six or seven tends to naturally acquire a native accent in the language. When it comes to children growing up in a multilingual environment the timing very much depends on the family situation. If parents speak two different languages then it is natural that the children learn both languages simultaneously. In a family with both parents speaking a minority language with a child, the child might not learn the majority language until at nursery or school. Kids have an amazing capability to learn, and a child getting consistent exposure in for example three languages can learn all three at the same time.

Ann Morris
As a native language is acquired as an infant, ideally any additional languages should begin to be acquired as soon as possible. Children learn quickly. They hear, see the language(s) used in context, and absorb new things like little sponges. They don’t have hesitancy to learn new things or problems with accents. They are amazing.

Cheryl Sánchez
I think the best time to start learning a language is as soon as it has a purpose in your lives e.g. to communicate within the host country, to talk to Mum/Dad/relatives etc. so that your child knows that what they are learning is important. And after that you should definitely start as early as possible. If the approach you choose depends on each parent speaking their own language to your child, then start on the day they are born – it can be very tricky to switch later! We cover some ideas you might like to think about in advance in our article Planning for the future of your bilingual children.

2. Which bilingual strategy should be used?

Rita Rosenback
Which strategy to use also depends on the family language situation. In families where both parents speak a language, which is not the language of the community they live in, the recommendation is to use the ‘Minority language at home’ approach. This means that the parents will only speak their native language with the child and the child learns the majority language from the environment, TV or other media, other kids or when they start school. If the parents speak two different languages, the common approach is the so-called ‘One parent, one language’ system – the child learns one language from the mother and the other from the father and both parents stay consistent in their language use. Another option is to use the ‘Time and place’ strategy where a child will be exposed to different languages based on what day (or part of the week or week) it is or depending on the location. This is probably the strategy that requires the most commitment and effort, but several families have successful raised children to speak more than one language this way. A typical family who would use this approach is for example when one parent wants to pass on two languages to the children, or in a single-parent family.

Ann Morris
If possible, the best way to learn a language is through immersion. In the case of a child, that would be in the home, with a nanny, family members, camps, immersion schools, travel experiences where the language is used naturally. The more the learner is exposed to the language, the more natural the learning process. Other helpful supplements would be tutors, radio/television programming in the target language, movies, friendships, play, children’s books, frequent contact where the learner is also allowed to practice the language.

María Babin
This is a personal decision that should be decided by the family according to their needs and abilities. It is a smart idea to do a bit of reading on the different bilingual strategies that exist (one parent one language, for example, but there are many more) and to create a family bilingual plan. The family should take into consideration many factors such as their own heritage languages, level of proficiency, where they live and what the minority and majority languages are, what kind of support they will have, how much time each parent can dedicate and what level of proficiency they desire the children to acquire.

Cheryl Sánchez
Families should choose a strategy that works for their particular situation, given their location and linguistic backgrounds. This will frequently be a common approach like OPOL, MLAH, but many families develop their own unique approach that fits their family’s circumstances and lifestyle. Different approaches can have varying degrees of success, but this depends on what your success criteria are and what you consider as the meaning of ‘bilingual’ – a whole different question in itself! The Family Profiles on our blog have been a source of inspiration for many families – take a look here.


3. Will the child have a real need for each language?

Cheryl Sánchez
Again, raising children with two languages works best for those who have a real purpose for the language – a reason for communicating and persevering. They need to see and hear the language work in context, not just as an abstract idea. The whole reason for learning a language, after all, is not to know it but to use it.

María Babin
This question is vital as it can often be the deal breaker. A child who feels little need for the minority language, will feel little motivation to speak and will tend to prefer the majority language. Children most often want to be just like their peers and will feel a great motivation to learn to communicate in that language. Efforts must be made by the parents to ensure that their child will feel a real need to speak the minority language. How can that need be created? Playgroups with other children who speak only the minority language in question, frequent contact with family from the heritage country and in the minority language (e.g., letters, phone calls, Skype and visits) and finally family travel to the minority language country for vacation or an exchange program or study abroad when the children are old enough.

Rita Rosenback
Children are very pragmatic – if they don’t either need or want to do something, they often don’t end up doing it. So if you want your children to learn more than one language you need to create both the ‘need’ and the ‘want’ for your child to learn and use the language. If you consistently use your native language with your child, your little one will need (and want) to speak the same language. If you readily switch between languages, there is a great chance that your child will start preferring the majority language once he or she is more exposed to it. If your child is learning a language which is less spoken where you live, you will perhaps have to work a bit harder at making the language appealing by introducing it into games and other activities and reading a lot! Whenever possible visit places where the language spoken – nothing boosts children’s language skill more effectively than being immersed in it!

Ann Morris
The more each language is needed, the more practical it is to learn and the longer the child will retain what he/she learns. After fluency in a second language is acquired, additional languages become easier to learn, as compared to musical instruments and sports. Real need or opportunity to apply any information gives the learner more motivation to learn and remember it.

4. What will be the type and amount of input from each language?

Ann Morris
The input from learning each language will depend on the exposure opportunities and the fun associated with them. Other skills enhanced by learning a language will be flexibility in thought and acceptance of new ideas. Vocabulary, problem solving and mathematical skills grow; artistic and musical skills or aptitude increase, academic reasoning and performance improve due to the transference of calculation, listening, and improvisational skills.

María Babin
This is difficult to determine, but parents should try to achieve (as a general rule) a minimum of 30% of language input in their day in order to achieve proficiency. Parents can examine their work schedules, their childrens’ school and extra-curricular activity schedules and time spent together as a family to try and determine the potential amount of language input that each child will receive. Also to be taken into consideration is the type of input, with an emphasis placed on real interaction between family members. If the family finds that the type and amount of input will be less than desired, they should be realistic in their goals of the type of proficiency that will be achieved.

Cheryl Sánchez
How to achieve the right balance between the two languages is something I am frequently asked by families. It can be really difficult to base a child’s bilingual learning on the input of someone who isn’t with the child for a large part of the day. However, many families manage just fine by adopting extra ways to balance their child’s immersion in the two languages. Our article ‘Getting The Balance Right: 9 Ways To Boost The Minority Language’ gives some suggestions!

Rita Rosenback
You may have heard the percentage 30% mentioned as to how much of their waking time children should be exposed to a language to learn it while growing up. This figure is not based on research and I think it is impossible to determine a specific number, as there are too many variables: what type of exposure – is it two-way communication or just listening; the personality of the child – a talkative child may pick up words more quickly just because of the amount of communication; the importance of the language to the child; the attitude of the parents to the languages and so on. However, it is a good reference point when planning for the language exposure. In my book “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, I give some guidelines on how to set up your own Family Language Plan and how to get an idea about how much exposure your child actually gets to each language.

5. What other support can parents count on?

Cheryl Sánchez
Living, breathing examples of the languages are the best role models to support a child on their bilingual adventure – relatives and meetups with other bilingual families in your local area are the obvious examples, but remember to highlight important role models from elsewhere – sports personalities, film stars and others in the spotlight all serve as inspiration for language learning. Other than that, try any way you can to fill your home with language – books, DVDs, even printed text on food packets and clothes etc – so that your children are exposed to it every day and have more purpose for their learning. Our article 5 Ways To Support Your Child’s Language Learning At Home (And Ensure Success!) gives some extra ideas.

María Babin
Parents should brainstorm a list of resources and support that they can count on to help them achieve their bilingual goals. Grandparents, other family members, language courses at school, private language classes or personal tutors, multi-media (DVD’s, computer software, websites) in the minority language, local associations and clubs, books on multilingualism, books for the children to read, games, etc. Many books on multilingualism offer more complete lists of resources that parents can rely on.

Ann Morris
Ideally, a parent would seek out companionship and fun activities to maintain opportunities for the child to continue to find the language useful and to remember it. Checking for bilingual daycare, cultural events, native cuisine, library experiences, activities such as visiting religious centers, participating in camps, sports, music, and dance associated with the culture all build a network of friends and contacts that can expand understanding of people who speak the language. Local schools and libraries can many times assist in providing resource information. In addition, the phone book or Internet may be equally helpful in locating educational and cultural information.

Rita Rosenback
It doesn’t quite take a village to raise a bilingual child, but having a supportive extended family, close friends who speak the language as well as other bilingual families sure does help! Especially grandparents can be of invaluable support in keeping a language active. With the help of modern technology, they can read the bedtime stories even if they are on the other side of the world or be there to chat to the teenager returning home from school. Speaking to other parents who bring up their children to speak more than one language is also a great way to get support. They don’t even have to do it in the same languages as you – the principles are the same and you will get lots of ideas on how to keep going with your family languages!

If you would like to compare the answers above with François Grosjean’s own, then click here.

Our thanks to the experts who collaborated to make this post what it is. All its value comes from them!

See you next time,

Jim

Jim Porter is a co-founder of Speekee, home of the most comprehensive Spanish learning program for children ever to appear online

Jim began his Spanish learning journey in 1990. He has been a language teacher since 1994 and he lives in sunny southern Spain with his two bilingual children. Loves it! More…

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