Learning more than one language at a time

Learning more than one language at a time
While some parents worry that a child who is exposed to several languages will experience delayed language development, research shows that this is not the case.

While some parents worry that a child who is exposed to several languages will experience delayed language development, research shows that this is not the case. “A bilingual child whose language development is delayed would probably experience the same difficulties in a unilingual environment as well. Exposure to more than one language may delay language learning only slightly. It’s therefore unnecessary to reduce exposure to one of the two languages. We rather encourage parents to use the language they feel most comfortable with,” explains Dr. Cousineau.

But what happens when neither of the parents speaks French, but the child is exposed to French at daycare or at school? Sylvie Nuckle, a speech therapist for the Commission Scolaire de Montréal, gives parents the same advice: to address their children in the language they master best and not to force themselves to speak to them in French. “A mother tongue is also full of cultural values. The stronger this language is, the easier it will be for the child to acquire other languages.” She believes that we can compare learning a language to building a house: the more sturdy the foundation, the more solid anything added to it will be.

In all cases, the rule of thumb to facilitate your child’s learning is simple: avoid mixing words from several languages into one sentence when you talk to your child. He will therefore be able to associate certain situations or people to each language (e.g.: we speak Mandarin with daddy and French with mommy).

For Marie-Andrée, Gabriel and Flora’s mother, living in a bilingual environment nevertheless poses a challenge for her children. “I speak to my children in French, while my partner speaks to them in Spanish. Until age three, Gabriel even went to a home daycare where the educator spoke Spanish. Things went very well. But since attending a French CPE, he seems less comfortable with Spanish.”

According to Andrea MacLeod, a researcher at Université de Montréal interested in the study of language acquisition among bilingual children, for a child to learn two languages, He must hear them often and be able to practice them. However, the researcher also notes: “Don’t assume that the learning is automatic. The child must, in turn, be motivated to learn that second language.”