Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Are 3 Languages Too Many For My Toddlers ?

With me being Chinese, DH being Cypriot and our common language being English, there was no doubt in my mind that the little ones should be at least bilingual, if not multi-lingual.

Admittedly, it was quite an effort and felt a bit "weird" in the beginning for me to speak Chinese with the little ones in the presence of DH but I soon got used to it. DH never got used to speaking Greek with the little ones, so he speaks to them in our common language (English). My in-laws however, always speak to the little ones in Greek.

It all feels pretty "natural" for us, as a multi-cultural family, to bring up multi-lingual children but the questions that I often ask myself are: What is best for the children ? Are 3 languages too many for them ? Shall we just stick to 2 languages, so they wont get too confused ? Will it affect their overall speech-development, having to learn 3 languages at the same time ?

I have read a few articles and also discussed this issue in several forums and found that there are quite a few opinions and views in this issue but here are a few common recommendations:
  • Try to stick to the OPOL (One Person One Language) method, to minimize your child's confusion.
  • Try to meet other people that speak the minority language(s). Minority language is the language that is not spoken in the country that you live in. Children learn through listening, so the more exposure, the more they will learn.
  • Only speak your native language with your children, otherwise they will learn to make the same mistake as you make in the that language.
  • A child generally only speaks a language proficiently, if the exposure is at least 30%. So try and find a good balance between the languages you want your child to learn.
  • Do what feels natural to your family. If it does not feel natural and right, then it is unlikely that you will stick to it anyway.
  • Try to discourage your child to use different language then "your" language with you by gently asking him/her to repeat it in "your" language, in order for him/her to get used to expressing themselves equally in the different languages.
  • Do not punish your child if he uses "the wrong" language. Instead, try encouraging him/her to use "the right" one. Make sure your child doesn't make negative associations with speaking a certain language.
  • Children learn through listening and hearing words being used in different situations, so read books to your children in the different languages. This will also increase their vocabulary, which is essential for mastering any languages.
Some research has shown that multi-lingual children's speech development may be somewhat delayed, compared to their mono-lingual peers and same/similar research has also shown that multi-lingual children may experience future learning difficulties. Shall I be concerned ?

If they do for some reason experience some kind of delayed speech development or learning difficulties, how am I to know that it is because of their multi-lingual background and not because they are twins, as research has also shown that twins may have these problems !

By the way, for those that think that I may be worrying too much, I am not. I just find this subject very interesting. So, if you have any interesting info, please do leave me a comment !

To find out more, read these articles about general points, practical recommendations and common mistakes, and join a group/forum about raising multi-cultural children.


Anonymous said...

Speaking from personal experience only. We speak mainly English at home, but the kids are at French school and speak French all day long. Both my kids are doing very well at school and are above average in their classes.
My youngest is 9 and came to France when she was 3. She sometimes throws a French word into the conversation if she doesn't know the word in English. We then teach her the English word.
My son is 11 and is facinated with language and wants to learn Spanish.
I have a friend who is German and her husband is English. Their French born children speak German and English equally well and now go to French school where they both do absolutely fine.
Even if as a result a child's speeech was a bit delayed, does it matter in the long run when you think of what a gift they will have?

Anonymous said...

My oldest son has been exposed to 3 languages since birth. I speak to him in Mandarin, his first nanny spoke to him Malay (and now I just add to his vocab), and the language we speak at home is English. My son is now four and can speak all three languages. There was, however, a point in time that he was speaking all three at the same time (he was mixing up his words and his sentence structure appeared undeveloped) I thought I had ruined him and I was terribly worried that I had been too ambitious at the cost of his development.
I went to see language professionals, and turns out I was wrong. (yay!) Not only is it okay for children to learn multiple languages simultaneously, but as you've gathered for yourself it will be to their advantage. I also learned in my guilt fueled quest that If a child grasps a language before the age of six, that language will be stored in the same part of their brain as their native language. Sounds like i good thing to me. Just don't freak out if there is an appearance of seemingly awkward stage, I've been assured that it's only natural for children to learn at a time and method that's best for them, and sometimes that's their way of sorting it out. It's not so much a delay as much as it is a 'sorting' process.
In Singapore where there are four national languages, Over 95% of school aged children are bilingual. Second languages are required from ages 5-16 in the local school system (they are generally introduced at age 3). Singaporean teenagers also score exceptionally well in the international exam arena.

Emma said...

My parent's moved to France last year and my son is really interested in French unfortunately there's not enough children in his pre-school interested in learning in French so they've stopped the class and my local la jolie ronde class is from 5 up wards so I'll have to wait another year. I've bought some books, dvds and cds and Will keeps asking my what things are in french but my french isn't that good, luckily there's google. I'm going to re-learn japanese and teach him that too. I learnt manderin in college but it's too hard for me.

Derek said...

Chinese Made Easy for Kids with a proven method that engages children for Learning Chinese speaking and writing including knowing 170 Chinese characters from memory. Part of a 9-level series that is used by schools and by home schoolers.

tc said...

Derek, do you know the publisher for the series ? Would be interested in finding out more.