Frequently asked questions from bilingual homes
Our “Raising a bilingual child: The top five myths” webinar with Caroline Erdos was a popular and questions from bilingual homes are still coming in. Here we share more questions that have been sent in from both educators and parents, along with Dr. Erdos’ expert answers:
- When the children in my class start a sentence in one language I encourage them to finish it in the language they started speaking in. For example, if they say “le grand house” I will respond oh you mean “la grande maison” and have the child repeat the whole sentence in French properly. Is this a good way of correcting them?
Since children often use a word from a different language when they just do not know the word in the language that they are speaking, it does make sense for you to provide the word in the second language. While it will help them learn the word if they also repeat it, they will also learn simply from hearing you present the word. Therefore, it is not necessary for you to insist that they repeat it as in some instances, this ‘intervention’ may break the flow of the conversation.
- Is it preferable to introduce a second language during specific parts of our child’s daily routine (e.g., bath time, when we are on outings) or can it be anytime across contexts?
As long as you are a fluent speaker of that language, choosing specific daily routines is a good way to make sure that you are exposing your child to the new language on a regular basis. It also provides opportunities for learning through natural situations that are repetitive and this does indeed facilitate language learning.
- For a 4-year-old francophone child, what is the best way to introduce English?
Children learn language faster through live human interaction and language learning is best achieved when it is delivered through real-life contexts. For a typical 4-year-old, real-life contexts where they interact with others include going to daycare, being part of a soccer team, taking music or dance lessons, or participating in library story time. Therefore, to the extent possible, find such activities in the second language as a way to expose your child to the new language. Another way is to introduce the language at home during specific daily routines (See Question 3 above), but in this case, you must be a fluent speaker of that language.
- We didn’t start at the house with our maternal language but kids are hearing it from family and us. Kids speak French now. Question: can we start with the maternal language at 5years old.
Absolutely, it is never too late to learn another language!! The only caveat is that individuals who learn a new language past 6 to 8 years of age may not ever sound like true native speakers with respect to their pronunciation or grammar. However, this does not apply to your children because they are below this cut-off.
- The maternal language of my boys, aged 5 and 8, is Cantonese because my wife and her family were very present when they were each aged 0-3. Since they were born, I have only spoken to them in French, my wife in Cantonese and they learned English at daycare from 3-5 years. They now attend French school. My wife’s vocabulary is not very developed in Cantonese. My boys are therefore also limited in this language and this is why they speak more French. I am wondering if it was/is a good thing for their cognitive development that their maternal language is limited and that they speak it less and less. Neither my wife nor my boys know how to read in Cantonese.
Rather than being due to suboptimal language modelling, it is more likely that your children are speaking predominantly French because their current total language input in a given week is greater in French (school, father to children, parents together, children together) than in Cantonese (mother to children) or in English. Increasing their exposure to Cantonese in the home and, if possible, through extra-curricular activities (books on CD, movies, Cantonese Sunday school, music lessons, dance lessons), would eventually result in a corresponding increase of the children’s verbal productions in this language.
To answer your question, there are many second language speakers from a variety of language backgrounds whose vocabularies include many words that they only know in their second language. Exposure to such language models is not harmful to children and to the contrary, achieving high levels of linguistic ability in at least two languages is associated with important cognitive advantages that span a lifetime.
- I speak only English while my husband speaks English and Armenian. As I eagerly anticipate my child’s first words, I wonder if it’s possible it will be an Armenian word in which case I would not recognize it. Would a child coordinate the language of her first words with the parent who speaks the language?
Children will usually produce their first words in the language in which they have heard this word spoken most often. So, for example, if your child has heard the word ‘Mommy’ more often than the word ‘Mayriki’, he or she is more likely to say ‘Mommy’. If, on the other hand, he or she has heard the word ‘gndak’ more often than the word ‘ball’, ‘gndak’ might be used initially when labelling a ball. Overall frequency of input matters, but so does context. That is, you may find that there are certain words that come up more when you are interacting with your child and certain words that come up more when your husband is interacting with your child. It is only natural for your child to produce those words in the language that he has heard them.
This being said, since both you and your husband speak English to the child, the overall language input that your child hears is probably greater in English than in Armenian and as such, your child will probably produce more English words overall than Armenian words.
- ‘Raising a bilingual child: The top five myths” webinar’ – a webinar and video with Dr. Caroline Eros and Morneau Shepell
- Download our Bilingual/Multilingual handout here as well.
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