A note for parents and care-takers

of bilingual or multilingual children

 

Dear parents of bilingual or multilingual children, 

You have probably heard many times that "children are like sponges", that they absorb anything. So, it may seem like we can expose the child to as many languages as we want and they will end up speaking in tongues. For instance, if the mother and the father have different L1s and they live in a third country, it might seem like the child will end up learning three languages just fine. This is a myth, and one that is causing a lot of damage. Children DO NOT learn languages "effortlessly". In other words, they are programmed to develop any human language, but in order to do that they need an enormous amount of input, one that consists of thousands of sentences every week, spoken by different speakers. Babies perform sophisticated analyses on that input. They infer the grammar from those statistical analyses. In sum, they re-invent language anew. But I insist: this is not a free ride. In order to succeed, they need the right amount and type of input.

If you want your child to master your language in spite of the fact that you live in a different culture or that your spouse speaks a different language, then you need to plan carefully. You need to provide for times and activities that consist of a meaningful quantity of quality input (no, the TV will not do by itself). The child needs to have a healthy relationship with all the languages that he is supposed to acquire. You need to provide for trips or whatever is necessary for the child to have access to input. Think carefully about all the activities, and balance the times in which they speak each language. It is possible not to have any mother tongue if parents are not careful, and this acts in detriment of the child. Being multilingual is a great cognitive achievement, and a beneficial one, but children cannot be expected to grow languages without help and careful strategic planning.

The issue of literacy in all of the languages of a multilingual is yet a separate problem that parents need to think about too. Many people who live in a foreign country think that their children are bilingual or multicultural, but that is not true in a lot of cases: the children are able to communicate somehow in the language of their parents, but they by no means have a large vocabulary, they cannot read and write in that language, etc.

Please be serious and rigorous if you are responsible for raising a bilingual or multilingual child. Ending up with a bunch of "half languages" is not fun for them and may cause emotional, cognitive and identity problems.

I hope that this helps. Language learning is full of myths that have no scientific basis.  Do not let yourself be mislead by them. Learning a language, even for children, IS A LOT OF WORK.

On the other hand, do not be misled by doctors, teachers and even speech therapists that advise you not to raise your child bilingual because "that will interfere with their mother tongue", etc. Languages do not interfere with each other at the grammatical level. There is an appearance of interference because language development is a process of tuning your brain to the input, and there are stages at which there is a lot of trial and error on the part of the speaker. But this is not a cognitive problem at all and it does not result in any disadvantage later on, provided that, as we said above, the child is exposed to enough input. Those stages (that look like regressions) occur whether you are monolingual or bilingual and are nothing to fear. 

Sincerely,

The research team

The following link is interesting and encouraging. You can find many articles on multilingual children here:

http://www.multilingualliving.com/2014/01/13/why-raising-bilingual-child-very-simple-very-difficult/

Also, here go some interesting references: 

Growing up with Three Languages. Birth to Eleven. By Xiao-lei Wang 

The Bilingual Family. A Handbook for Parents. By Edith Harding-Esch and Philip Riley.

The Bilingual Family Newsletter 

Several other guides for teachers and parents by Multilingual Matters