Advice and Tips

BiLingualism – ability to speak a second language

Young children learn languages as naturally as they learn to run and jump, paint and play

A young child has less to learn compared with an older child so they learn faster and it seems easier. It is not a learning process but rather an acquisition process. When children are young, language among young children is "caught rather than taught" says the book by Colin Baker "A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism,"

Bi-Lingualism – to speak a second language

"If you want your child to learn a language, you will have to speak to him in that language from the moment he is born. The more months you wait the more difficult it will be for his brain to recognise new sounds and a sound map of the brain is matured very early."

How does language develop?

According to Nadine Chadier (the Director of Accent, an organiser of language courses for adults) bilingual language acquisition has been observed to develop in three stages:

1. The child builds a list of words from the two (or more) languages.

2. Sentences emerge containing words from both languages. The amount of mixing then rapidly declines. Maybe from 30% to 5% by the third year

3. As the vocabulary grows, translation equivalent develops. But the acquisition for grammar of separate sets of rules takes longer. For a while, a single system of rules seems to be used for both languages, until finally the two grammars diverge. By the fourth year they are aware that the two languages are not the same. By the time these children start school, the vast majority has reached the same stage of linguistic development.

A personal view point.

I have heard and read many diverging points of view with a predominance of people thinking the one language-one parent is best. We speak French at home although my husband is English. His French is up to it and I know that the children’s French skills would lose out if English was also spoken at home (it is now anyway between the older two as they speak English at school and see no need to switch).

This is what Colin Baker says about which parent should speak which language: "The balance between languages needs discussion and decisions. The discussion of balance needs to include the dominance and status of the languages in the community, in school as well as in family life." He recommends some possible strategies:

• There is the one language-one parent separation strategy. Each parent speaks a different language to the child who responds in that language.

• At home, the minority language only is spoken.

• Another strategy is to speak the second language on certain days or alternate days. This has been achieved by some families, the residual question being about its naturalness or artificiality.

• Language compartmentalisation, being brought about by the location in which language is used, i.e. school, church, holiday etc.

Once again, the decision to immerse one’s child in the English system depends on your personal circumstances. As seen above, the younger the better, as your child probably won’t even ‘notice’ her new friends are speaking another language. However, as your child gets older and the curriculum requirements require a more advanced language it tends to become more difficult. Provided it is handled sympathetically, sensitively and carefully, language transition is possible at any age. Children are amazingly resilient and adaptable to new situations including language situations. However, if your child is struggling in the long term to catch up with the language competence required to cope in the curriculum, parents may need to consider carefully the alternatives.

Your child will probably have an added advantage in her adult life because of her extra language: for example an artist, a businessman or anybody in a job requiring good social skills will do better than their mono lingual counterpart. However, a high competence in the majority language will always be of paramount importance. To compete for jobs (and in any situation really), fluency in the majority language is often required and demanded. I have a friend who makes (small) mistakes when speaking in both her maternal and paternal languages; it is odd (though charming) and although she is doing well in life, I do not wish that on my own children. Very few people can speak two languages perfectly enough to convince another native speaker. Children should be able to feel 100% competent in at least one language.

Do boys and girls differ in their progress towards bilingualism and biliteracy?

Are first-borns different to later-borns in developing bilingualism?

Is there a ‘critical age" when children shouldn’t be moved school?

What types of bilingual education exist?

Are some families better placed than others to produce bilingual children?

For the answer to these fascinating questions and more read the book A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism by Colin Baker published by Multilingual Matters, £9.95,


 This book is very easy to read with a question and answer format. It gives good advice on all possible questions you may have about bi- or multi-linguism. 



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