Our family, like many other multilingual families, follows a language strategy in which parents speak to each other in a language different from the one they speak to their children. My husband and I communicate with each other in English, I speak Russian to our children, and my husband speaks Italian to them.
In our multilingual family set up children are exposed to English language mostly passively with very little active interaction. I always believed in the power of passive language learning; however, I was still wondering if it can bring any good results. My children are now 4,5 and 2,5 years old, and everyday I see more and more proof of that children are able to learn the language passively, and that passive language exposure builds good ground for planting a "language tree".
The exposure to a second language in a childhood helps to learn that language in adulthood.
I remember when I studied German I had a student in my class, who was impressively fast absorbing all new German words and grammar. I was seating close to her and we talked about it. Apparently her grandmother spoke German to her, when she was a baby. I noticed her ability to break down those incredibly long German words with an ease. In German there are many compound words, words that are stringed together. For example, the three words word "risk life insurance" in English is a one word "risikolebensversicherung" in German. It took me some time before my brain learnt to separate the words inside of one word to get its meaning. A fun fact: in 1996 German 79 letter word, "Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaf", even made into the Guinness Book for World Records! Don't you just love the way German language challenges you?! But back to the passive learning...
No matter how old you are, listening to the language helps to learn new words.
According to Dr Sulzberger from Victoria University, New Zealand, "listening to the language creates neural tissue and connections in the brain and facilitates learning of new words in that language." It does not have to happen tomorrow, but the moment a person will be required to remember words in the language they are passively exposed to, they will do it with an ease. Dr Sulzberger notes that "our ability to learn new words is directly related to how often we have been exposed to the particular combinations of the sounds which make up the words. "
And what I noticed in my kids, exposing to a language passively also creates high level of curiosity that stimulates the language learning.
I remember how my almost 3 year old son was asking me to translate Russian words into English on our 1,5 hour car trip. It was a continuous question and answer inquisition trip. The first 10 minutes I was happy and proud, the next 10 - surprised and then... I was getting tired and bored. But what a mother would not do for her child?! Right! I was patiently translating the words into English for 1,5 hours straight! Besides of that extreme example of curiosity, my children periodically ask how would I call something in English. I guess they would like to grasp my conversations with their father ( what we converse about in English). I also notice that they are able to memorize English words I tell them almost right away.
Up until now I am somewhat slow in the active English teaching, as Russian still stands high on the list of priorities. I am waiting for my younger child to get to a certain level with Russian, before I start investing more time into both children's English.
We read English books on occasions. I do not choose them myself, the kids do and what is important they do not mind that they are in the language they are least familiar with. I also play recordings of English nursery rhythms and songs for the kids. I use pictures, if they are available to help kids to understand meaning of unfamiliar English words. They have so much fun with "Mouse, nose, knees and toes!" song - . they dance, sign along and point to various body parts following my example.
Children feel comfortable to be surrounded by a foreign language to which they were previously exposed.
The children feel comfortable when English is used around them and when someone talks English to them. Last summer we went on vacation with our English speaking friends. It is a bilingual family in English and German that consists of father, mother and two cute girls, both are about our children's age. It was interesting to watch how their relationship develops and how the children were repeating words in each other language. Even though our children did not speak English (just some words), they could communicate well and could understand what they were told getting more confident in the language by the time we had to say "goodby".
If children are exposed to a language passively they do not speak it, but it does not mean they do not understand it.
An interesting research was done by Sudha Arunachalam, Ph.D., director of the BU Child Language Lab and assistant professor in the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences at Sargent College, in which monolingual toddlers were able to acquire some word's meanings when were presented with "the novel verbs without visual access to the speakers, child - directed speech, or discourse context". Dr. J. Scofield, a director of The Bama Cognitive Development Lab at University of Alabama, in the study of "Word learning in the absence of a speaker" concludes that "referential context is not necessary for successful word learning" This research was done on monolinguals, but I do not see a reason why the results can not be applied to bilinguals or multilinguals. The exposure to new words is constant in the case of parents speaking a different language to each other than to the children, plus parents are observed by children for visual cues that help to match words to the meaning more easily. And in fact, we had several times a situation in our family when our son was interrupting our conversation in English because he wanted to contradict to what we were talking about. He clearly understands almost everything we say.
This is what I have observed up to now, while my children are still small. What should I expect when they grow up older? I believe that whatever children have learnt without a direct interaction can be pushed on the back of their brains as less important stuff. I do not think children would stop understanding the language as they grow up, but it would be rather laying in a dormant stage. The best thing that parents can do in this situation is to use the language foundation they have built to transition their children's intuitive language understanding into the actual active usage. Best time to do it is while languages are a part of the natural childhood learning process and a play. By looking at my children I would say that about 4 years is the right age for bringing up the dormant language out. This is the period kids enjoy learning new words and master their speaking.
What is your experience with exposing your child to a language passively? I am curious to learn about your children's level of understanding of the "parents language" especially when they become older.
Arunachalam, S. (2013). Two-year-olds can begin to acquire verb meanings in socially impoverished contexts. Cognition, 129, 569-573.
Scofield, J., Williams, A., & Behrend, D. A. (2007). Word learning in the absence of a speaker . First Language , 27 (3), 297-311.
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Life story: A Journey to Multilingualism. How can a person become bilingual, trilingual or multilingual?
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Can babies distinguish foreign languages?