Are bilinguals or multilinguals any different from monolinguals when it comes to speaking? Well, yes and no. Bilinguals might start speaking somewhat later; however, the latest research totally rejects a clinical language delays in bilingual or multilingual children as a result of exposure to two or more languages simultaneously.
In "Language development in bilingual babies: no delays, just a few adjustments" François Rochon talks about research of Professor Christopher Fennell of the University of Ottawa's School of Psychology:
Research has shown [...], that monolingual toddlers learn to distinguish similar-sounding words at around 17 months old. Professor Fennell has found that bilingual infants start to do this at 20 months.
Prof. Fennell doesn't at all believe the "delay" in sound distinction is a hindrance. Bilingual babies are simply learning an adaptive strategy because they're facing a more challenging language environment. That strategy sees them unconsciously ignore some of the sound cues they receive so that they can concentrate on matching the word with the object it represents.
What does it mean for you as a parent? It means that you should not worry that two or more languages are too much for a child, and that you should focus on how to help your child and ease that task of connecting words with objects. Do not think about it as something not natural and extra work for you. Look at this the same way you look at helping your child keep his balance while he is making his first steps. Come down to your child's level of understanding when you read or talk to him; proving extra explanations. According to the researchers, a 4 month old baby is already learning to connect words with objects. So start early!
Point on the objects while talking about them, and do the same on the pictures in the books, following a story as you read it to your child. You need to catch new words and follow on them explaining their meanings. I often use Google to find pictures of words that are not pictured in books we read, or when I'd like to provide some extra explanation and show something in details. Pointing is a powerful tool for creating word-object connection. So make a point to point :) Read also How to read to a baby?
Researchers also found that children have difficulties to distinguish one languages from another, if the languages you expose your child to belong to the same rhythm category (such as English and German (stress-timed), French and Spanish (syllable timed), Japanese and Tamil (mora-timed)) . Deborah D.K. Ruuskanen, Professor of English Linguistics at the University of Vaasa, Finland, and mother of three bilingual children says:
if there is more than one language in the baby's home environment, then the baby will be learning first to process and separate the different languages, before talking begins.
As you probably already experienced yourself, there are natural obstacles in the language learning process. So be ready to face this challenge and simplify the language learning task for your child by being consistent. Speak only the language you choose to speak with your child.
If you decided to speak only one language to your child - then do it all the time, without mixing with other languages in direct interactions.
If you, as one person, decided to speak to your child two or more languages, think of the best strategy to separate the languages one from another. You could alternate days or even weeks when languages are spoken to your child, for instance, one day / week Italian only and another day / week - Hungarian. You could also assign a language to a certain activity: bathing, family meals, playgroups ... Think of some possible, appropriate to the child's age sign that you can give to your baby, to help him to understand what languages you speak and when. It could be a different color bow in your hair, a scarf, different picture on the wall. Just use your imagination!
You also need to be consistent with the language you speak to others at front of your child. If you decided to speak to your spouse other language then to your child, please make an effort and speak only that language. This brings structure to the language recognition and, hopefully, helps the child to sort out the languages fast.
Nothing dramatic will happen if you mix the languages. There is a number of parents that does it and they have a bilingual or multilingual child afterwards. However, my position on it: if you dedicate your time to your child, why not just take care of the language consistency part as well to speed up and simplify language learning. I found that naming the languages with their proper name helps in the language separation process.
As you see, there are many variables that can affect when your child starts speaking. My children started speaking within the same time frame as monolinguals do. Since my concentration was on speaking Russian language, their first words and sentences were mostly in Russian. Interestingly, both children started speaking full sentences in Italian without usual long practice of words. They simply transferred the knowledge about building the sentences from one language into another by modeling the Italian speakers.
If you are pregnant, you might like to know that it is also beneficial to speak the languages you are going to use with your child during the last trimester. Research shows that infants are able to show preferences to and thus, recognition of the languages they were spoken to during the pregnancy after they were born.
When did your bilingual, trilingual or multilingual child start speaking? What do you think helped or delayed the child's speaking in your particular case? Share your thoughts to help other parents who read this page.
Language development milestones by ASHA - American Speech-Language-Hearing Association
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