Jun 16, 2012

How do I help my child to be bi-lingual?

Category: Children
Posted By: Alison

Question: We are a bi-lingual family, my husband is French and I am English.  We currently live in England but are planning to France to live nearer my husband’s family.  We would really like our six-month old daughter to grow up fully bi-lingual and are trying to understand how to best manage this.  We could speak to her in English at home and educate her in French, or the other way around.  We had also thought that I could speak to her in English and my husband in French but we were uneasy about how this would work in terms of family conversations.  We would very much like to maximize the benefits of being bi-lingual and minimize any difficulties for her.  Are you able to help us think about how to manage the situation? Many thanks, Alison

Answer: Dear Alison, Thank you for your question.  As it is a specialised topic I have asked a colleague of mine to answer it, Cedric Bouet-Willaumez, a psychotherapist who has given a lot of time to thinking about the use of languages and the psychological and emotional aspects of using being bi or multi-lingual.  I think his answer shows a great deal of insight and sensitivity to the matter and I hope you find it helpful:

Helping a child become bilingual presents a number of challenges that must be approached thoughtfully, as you and your husband are aware of.

Overall, learning more than one language from birth does not negatively affect the child’s cognitive development. Studies carried out in the last five to ten years show that even if bilingual children tend to have a slightly more reduced vocabulary in each language than monolinguals and build it up at a slower pace, their bilingualism will be an asset because it will improve their access to literacy and ability to problem-solve. The difference in vocabulary breadth and build-up rate can be corrected with parental input.

It is quite important that you continue exposing your son to English and French at home as you have been doing, until she starts attending school. Babies are born with the ability to hear and produce any sound, and this ability decreases significantly from the eighth month of life onwards as they ‘weed out’ all sounds that are not relevant to their language. So, to give your daughter the best possible start at school (both in terms of his learning and emotional experiences), she should be already very familiar with the language you chose to education her in.

There should not be a sudden introduction of a new language at home. You should make sure that the process is as smooth as possible. For example, when you play with her, you could associate different games and phases of play within the same game with different languages, and continue doing this as play becomes more elaborate.

If you want your daughter to learn both languages as her ‘first’ language, you should ensure that you cover as much physical, emotional and intellectual ‘territory’ with both languages as possible. Because she will use different languages in different contexts, this will determine which language she associates with which experience. For example if you speak French at home and she goes to an English school, English will be more firmly associated with sociability and work, and French with her experience of home and intimacy. This means that, even if she receives equal exposure to English and French, she will quite likely ‘specialise’ the languages and become less able to access and express a range of emotions in either language. This is very common in bilinguals, no matter how proficient they are in the languages that they speak.

Therefore it will be very helpful to encourage your daughter to access and express in French what she mostly lives in English, and vice versa.  If she is at an English school she will probably to want to tell you about her school life in English. So you could choose to have a conversation with her about this in the language that she chooses, while making sure that later you return to the subject and start a conversation in French. Note that with children under six, it is not recommended to mix two languages within sentences or conversations. It is best to give them the sense of a conversation with a beginning, middle and end in one language.  This will help your daughter create a harmonious relationship between the languages that she speaks, and it will accustom her to bringing the two perspectives into everything she experiences.

You mention adopting the “one parent, one language” approach and I would encourage you to go with your intuition. For you and your husband to split ‘language duties’ between the two of you would not reflect a natural situation and create tension and discomfort, which your daughter would pick up and be affected by.

It is essential that sharing the languages that you know with your child follows what feels most natural – and enjoyable – to you, even if this process requires thoughtful planning and applying firm boundaries.

Lastly, you asked specifically if speaking English at home would be enough for your daughter to learn the language. Ideally she could also have it taught at school, this would foster a fuller relationship with the language and would also remedy the tendency to ‘compartmentalise’ languages.

I hope this is helpful and wish you well with your endeavour,

Cedric Bouet-Willaumez



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