Bilingualism / Multilinguism: Definition:
Before we get started, we need a clear definition of the concept. This can vary; however, in general it means that a person who is bilingual/ multilingual can communicate in more than one language, orally and/or in writing, in an active or passive manner. In order to understand what it means, it is helpful to learn about language acquisition and how it can be presented across different families, cultures, and societies.
Bilingual/ Multilingual language acquisition:
Language acquisition is usually described as:
- Two or more languages acquired from birth
- Similar language milestones in comparison to monolingual speakers, e.g. first spoken words, nr of words at different age groups, morphological development
- An additional language(s) is introduced after the 1st language is already secure (usually, after the first 3 years of age)
- Common amongst immigrants across generations
While considering the acquisition pathways above, what becomes clear is that children have an extraordinary learning capacity. For example, studies have shown that newborn babies can differentiate between the languages they hear in-utero, and they are receptive to any sound system before their first anniversary, at which point they start distinguishing between the distinct sounds of their mother tongue(s) and those of their community language(s). Children can make choices regarding the language they want to hear and speak, and they can switch between them competently (code-switching). How do we define this competence though?
Before we look at how competence is generally defined, it is crucial to remember that language development, monolingual or bilingual/ multilingual, is highly dependent on the quality and quantity of exposure, and that there are variables that contribute to a definition of success, such as the impact it has on cultural and social-emotional development, mobility, and access to family, higher education, and the job market. It is also important to remember that human beings have a continuous ability to learn and, often, will successfully do so when wanted and needed.
- Balanced competence across languages: Difficult to achieve as we often access different languages across different settings, e.g. a language at home (or more), one or more at school/ work/ community. There tends to be a majority language that is often spoken outside the home language(s), which may impact on equal competence across all language domains. This may mean that a child may have stronger vocabulary in areas that are related to family, emotions, and hobbies in a home language, and stronger academic vocabulary in the language accessed at school
- Dominant competence: A competence that is dependent on the quality and quantity of exposure. It does not necessarily mean one language is more dominant than the other, but that different language areas are dominant across different languages, as discussed above
- Passive / regressive competence: This is common amongst immigrant families that are unable to access consistent language exposure. It may result in an individual retaining receptive competence (understanding) but experiencing a gradual decrease in expressive functionality (talking). This may be characterised by weaker vocabulary, grammatical accuracy, automatic language processing (when we do not automatically translate in our heads), and creative and social-emotional language use
At this point, we can ask - is there a one true definition of what bilingualism/ multilinguism should be? The answer is not really! We do not have to learn a language when we are little to be deemed bilingual/ multilingual, and we not only do not need equal proficiency across all the languages we speak, it is challenging to do so due to the common social-linguistic parameters we are faced with. This means we will have dominant areas across the various languages we speak, and these can be adapted as we grow due to our personal, familial, emotional, social, academic, and professional circumstances. What may be the reasons to keep learning languages?
The perks of Bilingualism/ Multilingualism:
The perks are multifold. In terms of cognitive and linguistic capacity, research in this area has proposed a semantic advantage, where bilingual/ multilingual individuals have stronger vocabulary links that support the learning of additional languages, i.e. a child who continues to learn their mother tongue, may learn additional languages at school more easily. These individuals may also develop dementia later than their monolingual peers, and show a more robust ability to infer and problem solve due to increased cognitive flexibility.
In terms of social-linguistic, and cultural access, the advantages are unparalleled. Bilingual/ multilingual individuals are better able to access different rich cultural backgrounds, including those of their families, strengthening familial bonds and the development of their cultural identity. This, in turn, may foster stronger links between cultures in this globalised world, and also support access to a wider job market across countries.
Challenges / Myths:
Challenges can be multifold as well and need to be addressed in the context of the vulnerability that many families may face by being away from their homes and loved ones, without access to services in their mother tongue. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges families may face is when their children may either be starting school in a completely different language and/or when their children may be neurodiverse and/or have a language difficulty. It is not uncommon for health and educational professionals to advocate dropping a mother tongue(s) in favour of the majority language, with the argument that children will a) not learn the new language as quickly and/or competently; b) learning more than one language is confusing; and c) neurodiverse children and/or children with language difficulties will be more delayed if they learn more than one language. This stance often demonstrates a weak awareness of typical bilingual/ multilingual language development:
- It is common for children who are learning a new language sequentially to go through a silent period where they are learning the new language receptively
- It is common for children to mix languages that they are learning, both in terms of vocabulary, syntax and morphology, particularly if they learn these languages from birth. For example, a child may place an adjective after the noun, and use a suffix to indicate a diminutive in a word that would not have one. Children may also add words in different languages in the same sentence, particularly at the early stages of learning additional languages, and they may continue to do so after they learn them, which is called code-switching. When used with speakers who understand the languages being used, it is a typical and rich form of communication
- When parents stop using their mother tongues, it becomes harder for children to learn language, any language, as it may limit the quality and quantity of language exposure that they are receiving at home
We cannot stress this enough:
Learning more than one language does not confuse children or exacerbate language difficulties. Children will go through different stages of multilingual language development. Children who have a language difficulty, will learn language at their own pace within their own language profile, which is not delayed further by accessing another language. All children deserve equal access to their rich linguistic and cultural background and no language is more valuable than another. The same way society values a majority language speaker learning a new language, it should value a minority language speaker speaking their mother tongue(s). This may lead to a more balanced integrated experience that honours the rich, diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds of all human beings.
It is also not uncommon to hear that bilingual/multilingual children start speaking later than their monolingual peers. There is no clinical evidence that this is the case. Simultaneous bilingual children generally follow the same language acquisition milestones as their monolingual peers. At times, vocabulary measures are used to justify this myth; however, this does not take into consideration that when measuring a child's vocabulary, it is crucial to measure total vocabulary across all the languages a child speaks rather than vocabulary level per language, which is likely weak, as exposure matters. This point is particularly important because it may result both in a) underdiagnosing and b) overdiagnosing language difficulties. When in doubt, it is advisable to seek a Speech and Language therapist's support to check if there are valid concerns.
The other challenge many bilingual/ multilingual families face is the level of exposure that they can provide. Nowadays, within an even more globalised world, families' linguistic background has become even richer, more complex. While there are many families who have a common home language and a majority social/ academic/ professional language, there is an increase in families that now have more than one home language with parents who come from different countries, and living in a 3rd country that may also have more than one language - we call these children 3rd culture children. It has become increasingly harder to provide high levels of quality exposure to each language, particularly in the context of Covid, when many of us have been unable to access our loved ones in and out of our home countries. What can we do to continue supporting our children learning all the languages that are meaningful for their families?
In short, there is no easy, standardised solution because every family may have their own set of variables that are important and set the stage for them. We know that exposure is key, so the most important variable is quantity. However, because our children do not always learn in the same way, quality is also key. What does this mean in practice?
We'll start with the most important factor when it comes to learning a language: Communication is far more valuable than any single language. In practical terms this means that, for many children, learning a language cannot be demanded, coerced or rewarded (with the best of intentions!). Thus, learning a language for a child with this profile, may mean listening to a parent speaking in their mother tongue while they respond in the majority language - you and your child are communicating in a positive, nurturing manner, and you are providing consistent receptive exposure.
Language is learned best in a natural context, both at home and in school, where speakers around that child are using their stronger language skills, providing rich, accurate language models. At home this may take various forms, e.g. one parent one language (OPOL), different days of the week for different languages, or different languages for different activities. Outside home, it can be more challenging because both the adults and the children may feel different pressures that can, at times, result in inconsistent exposure. In practical terms, this may be a parent who speaks their mother tongue consistently at home and the majority language when they are in a group with other families who do not speak their mother tongue. There is no right or wrong - It is tempting to look at this inconsistency negatively; however, using language socially in a confident manner is also important and it is important that each family is given an opportunity to adapt the way they feel they have to. This is particularly important as children grow and develop different exposure levels and go through specific social-emotional developmental patterns, e.g. an adolescent may become more proficient in an area in the majority language and would benefit from a discussion in the majority language, or they may go through a phase when they need to identify with the majority language in public
The following is general advice for all families:
- As frequently as possible, continue speaking in your mother tongue(s) and languages that you confidently dominate, regardless of which language your children use in response. Receptive exposure is paramount. This also reinforces your respect for your linguistic and cultural background, a message that is important for both majority and minority groups
- When children are younger, include language learning in games that are highly motivating, and use different mediums, e.g.
- Play Simon says in your mother tongue to learn body parts, objects around the house, adjectives, and following and giving instructions
- Learn verbs through arts and crafts
- Learn everyday vocabulary and practice following instructions during cooking activities
- Play children music in your mother tongue(s)
- Change the language settings on your TV to allow for films and cartoons being played in your mother tongue(s)
- Play motivating iPad games in your mother tongue(s)
- Read books in your mother tongues everyday
- If visiting your home country is a possibility, do it as frequently as possible. Depending on your children's temperament and your personal circumstances, camps back in your home country can be a fun, effective language learning experience. If this is not a possibility, time spent with family members is hopefully available! Creating positive, fun opportunities where there is an obvious need to connect in your mother tongue(s) is key!
- If available, gain access to your home community in the country where you live, for playdates and opportunities to listen to the adults speaking in your mother tongue
- For older children, there may be opportunities for continuous language learning over Zoom with someone from your home country, be it a social club or a structured language lesson. Playing online computer games where your mother tongue is spoken may also be an option
Being a bilingual / multilingual family is not a guarantee that our children will become bilingual/ multilingual themselves. What we can all strive to do, at both an individual and society levels, is to continue speaking and exposing our children to our mother tongue(s). Speaking more than one language is an opportunity to access valuable knowledge and experiences that enrich each one of us. It allows us to explore and expand our linguistic and cultural identity and provides us with choices that widen our horizons and strengthen our relationships with others. As with the complexity of human nature, language learning and the context in which it is learned can be highly diverse and, thus, we can all benefit from support and encouragement to pursue what we feel works best for our families. It may be an easy feat for some and take some time for others; however, ultimately, no matter how confident our children may be in speaking multiple languages, the more we value each others' rich linguistic and cultural backgrounds, the more we expect and show respect in these fundamental parts of our and others' identity.