The situation I am worried about the language development of my only child—again. He very recently outgrew a silent period only to start mixing two, sometimes three, languages. And now, his teacher at an English preschool recommends we completely give up one of his two mother tongues to help his communication. For some context, we are expatriates living in the United States.
I am Indonesian and my partner is French, but we communicate in our only common language English, which he is not fluent in having started learning it after we met. Since infancy, his father has been speaking to him in only French, while I have been doing the same in Indonesian. We have been thinking about his teacher’s comments but are not ready to give up, although reasons to believe that we should seem to only build up.
The mishmash of languages that I often overhear when my son talks to himself hardly make sense to us. This makes me worried that my child will not be able to express himself fully, in the future, if he is not proficient in any of the three languages. We fear that he will become semilingual. Are we confusing our son? What solutions exist for us? Dina replies This isn’t the calamity you make it to be, but I understand that mixing the two languages is not yet familiar for you and your husband as novices caught in a tangle of languages, cultures, and races. I suggest you persist and I’ll explain why.
Firstly, you seem to be enforcing a one person, one language principle at home, which is a good start. Keep it consistent and systematic. Your son is practicing code-switching, which is a normal experience of raising a bilingual child. With the approach you have chosen, a child that mixes languages back and forth within a single sentence is expected.
Think of it as a reflex of the mind, not that it suggests your child is unable to distinguish between these three languages or think of them as one, contrary to old research. Since English is taught and reinforced at your son’s preschool, he is using English as frequently as Indonesian and French because he is associating it with play. The switching is thus a phase that your child will overcome over time. You just have to be patient. Your teacher is expressing concern because she is comparing your child’s vocabulary to his monolingual peers, whose, bear in mind, first language is English. It is a common misconception, especially in popular culture, that code-switching is a sign that the child cannot tell their languages apart.
Deborah D. K. Ruuskanen from The Linguistics List of Eastern Michigan University assures that your child is, in fact, beginning to traverse down a slightly more advanced path in terms of his language development in spite of the slight delay at the start. This is based on the well-researched premise that code-switchers correctly mix grammar and syntax rules of languages without ever being taught to do so. Code-switching, which is a natural process, in addition not easy to do without fluency in both languages, are two of the main reasons for you to continue to foster a bilingual household environment. Your child’s multicultural makeup is another, especially as they age. The pursuit of bilingualism in a child can be affected by phases that the child undergoes en route to discovering their unique cultural identity (which can be a unification of different cultures). This discovery is something parents should not interfere with or impose on, but left up to the child.
The most parents can do for their children is to—at the first opportunity—teach their native languages and the culture it represents, at equal importance. The phase may be that your child starts to reject one of their languages—usually, it is the minority language, simply because of pragmatic reasons such as not seeing a use for it and/or it doesn’t help them fit into their community. Remember, this is merely a phase and your child losing the ability to speak this language can be avoided: By sharing the cultures of the languages that your child is being taught, not only does it reconnect your child to your cultural heritage, but they will hold more value to it, and eventually save a place for this minority language to be used in their everyday life.By the time your child refuses to speak one of the languages, he will be old enough to be able to retain the foundation of native fluency and to make it available again for if and when he overcomes this phase. Similarly with identity, bilingualism cannot be isolated from socialisation. In some cases, socialisation may be even more important than formal study for furthering your child’s language development. In such situations, code-switching also plays as an important factor for social relationships as it can become integral to your child’s self-expression.
For instance, your child will quickly learn to recognise social situations and people with whom they can code switch with, and those they cannot. Your child will be more likely to code-switch with other bilinguals, using the language that their listener knows best—kind of like shorthand. And although your child may end up having a primary language, there is still room to mix verbiage into dialogue as a means to express themselves using words from the language most suited and comfortable for the certain situation.Moving forward, do not discourage your child from code-switching. Neither should you correct him. Rather, listen to his message and proceed to ask follow-up questions that encourage a response in your language, to which he adapts.