Q: I am the mother of a newborn. French is my native language. I have heard conflicting reports on the benefits of speaking both French and English with my daughter. Some say it's good, others say it can delay language development. What should I do?
A: Go for it. Exposing your baby to a natural and rich environment in both English and French will help her become bilingual before she ever begins any formal education. And, by providing your baby the opportunity to learn the language of your family’s culture, you are helping her develop a cultural identity and connection to her family’s roots.
There is still a lot of research to be done on childhood bilingualism. What we do know is that children can learn two or more languages during childhood without any problems. And that in fact, it is much easier to learn language in the early years. The following are some variables that impact bilingual development that parents should keep in mind:
Babies learn at their own individual pace. So your child may develop her language skills at a different rate than a monolingual child and it may have nothing to do with the fact that she is learning two languages at once.
A key variable for bilingual acquisition is consistency in how children are exposed to the two languages throughout their early childhood. You can choose to provide a consistency in a variety of ways. For example, you might speak only French to her while Dad speaks only English. Or, your family may speak only French in the home and English outside the home. For families who are living in communities where their home language is not supported, it is important to provide children with lots of language experience in the home to compensate.
Be aware that your child's vocabulary in each language may be different than that of a monolingual child. Children learning two languages simultaneously may have smaller vocabularies in one or both languages, compared to children learning only one language. However, when both languages are taken into consideration, bilingual children tend to have the same number of words as monolinguals. Keep in mind that these differences are usually temporary. By the time most bilingual children have entered school, their vocabulary development has caught up with monolingual children.
Don’t worry about language-mixing. When children start to use both languages in the same sentence, parents may wonder if they are getting confused by the exposure to and use of two languages. Actually, this combined usage is a very normal stage in bilingual language development. Rest assured, over time and with experience, your child will begin to sort the two languages out on her own.
So delight in the joy of hearing your child explore and master two languages. When she’s older, she’ll be able to tell you Thanks…and also Merci!
From "Your Child's Behavior," a column written by ZERO TO THREE in American Baby magazine.