Learning Two Languages
by Karen Ursel
Bilingualism is on the rise in Canada, and Vancouver Island is no exception. Children who become bilingual may do so because their parents choose to teach them two (or more) languages or it may be out of necessity when a family immigrates. Whatever the reason for learning another language, bilingualism is a wonderful gift to give your child.
The term Simultaneous Bilingualism describes learning two languages at once and usually implies learning those languages from birth. Sequential Bilingualism is the term for learning a second language after age three. Typical Bilingual Language Development
Much of the research says that bilingual children who are simultaneous learners reach language milestones at similar ages to children learning one language. Many speech-language pathologists, however, report that there can be a lag in reaching these milestones, especially for children speaking their first words. Some general guidelines for language development are:
• By one year old, children should be able to understand a variety of words and be using a few single words.
• By two years old, children can point to body parts or familiar objects when asked. They have a vocabulary of 50 to 150 words and are combining two words, for example, “more cookie.”
• By three years old, children can follow two-step directions, for example: “Take off your shoes and put them in the closet.” Vocabulary increases drastically and utterances may be three or more words long. You should be able to understand 75 per cent of your three-year-old’s speech.
• By four years old, children can tell stories and talk about how they feel. A few sound errors may persist, but children should be 100 per cent intelligible.
Sequential language learners reach typical milestones in learning their first language but may have a different experience with the second language. These are part of the normal learning process for a second language and are not a cause for concern. For example, a child may experience:
• A Silent Period. Children may focus on listening and understanding when they first encounter a second language and may speak very little. The younger the child, the longer the silent period tends to last. This period may last anywhere from weeks to months.
• Interference. Children may make mistakes because of the influence of the first language on the second language. For example, in French, “cette maison est plus grande” means “this house is bigger.” A French-speaking child learning English might say, “this house is more bigger,” which would be considered interference from the French.
• Codeswitching. Children may use words from two languages within one sentence/utterance when speaking. Delayed Bilingual Language Development
Learning two languages does not cause a language delay or make an existing delay worse. If a bilingual child has a language delay, it will be present in both languages. A child having trouble learning a second language does not have a language delay unless the delay is also present in the first language. Children with a language disorder may still be able to learn two languages.
You may want to contact your local health unit for a Speech-Language Assessment if your child:
• Is significantly behind in reaching language milestones.
• Is not talking in her first language as well as other children the same age.
• Does not seem to hear or understand what is said to her in the first language.
• Is difficult to understand.
You can find contact information in the VIHA ad on this page or online at www.viha.ca/children
.Recommendations for Bilingual Leaning
If bilingual parents encourage a child to learn only one language—for example, English—that child may miss important family and cultural opportunities. Research shows that a strong foundation in a child’s first language will enhance the child’s learning of a second language. For these reasons, it is encouraging to see parents speaking to their children in their native tongues. This will strengthen language skills and create a stronger cultural bond.
Some ways you can help your bilingual child:
• Speak to your child in your first language. Maintaining your heritage language in the home helps to create good communication and close family ties. By using your first language you are providing a better language model for your child.
• Read to your child and sing songs in your first language.
• Take your child to community events where your first language is spoken.
• If you use two languages in the home, use one language at a time rather than mixing two together in the same sentence.
• Slow down and use simple language. If your child is only using two words, for example “more juice.” Try modelling three or four words ( “more apple juice” or “want more apple juice?”).
Becoming bilingual is a learning experience that the whole family can share and benefit from.Karen Ursel is a Speech-Language Pathologist who works with preschool children and their families at the Saanich Health Unit.