When children learn two languages from birth each language develops independently and at a rate that is strictly related to the quality of the child’s exposure to each language.
A team of researchers from Florida found that when children learn simultaneously two languages from birth, each language takes its own independent course. They also confirmed what has been suspected for a long time: that children’s vocabulary expands at a faster rate when they hear more sophisticated grammar.
It is a well-known fact that monolingual children’s vocabulary and grammar are strongly related. It turns out that the same rule applies to each language in bilingual children. However, “vocabulary and grammar in one language are not related to vocabulary and grammar in the other language”, explained Erika Hoff, Ph.D., the lead author of the study. The researchers noticed that in some children their skills in one language became vulnerable as the other language developed. At the same time the growth rate of the stronger language didn’t slow down. What does it mean for a parent of a bilingual child?
The researchers considered various possibilities when trying to establish what helps one child develop their language skills in both languages better than another child. They thought it might be something internal to the child or it’s because of the dependencies in the language development. It turns out, however, that “it’s not the quantity of what the children are hearing but the quality of the input language”. To us, parents and carers it means that the richer each language is, the more chance our children have to develop their language skills at a similar rate. In a bilingual language development, there is always a “stronger” language, be it a family language when the children are younger or a community language when they start preschool or school. Now that we are certain that each language develops at its own pace, parents can find it easier to embrace the differences and support the “weaker” language development.
Here are the 8 top ways to improve your child’s “weaker” language:
- Talk with them in the vulnerable language as often as possible. Don’t just talk “to” your child but involve them in the conversation. If you don’t feel comfortable enough to communicate in this language, find someone who could do it for you (e.g. other family members, friends, babysitter, nursery or preschool carers etc.).
- Read together with your child. The earlier you start, the better. When my son was a baby, I didn’t use the board books that had only images and no text. For some parents, and I was one of them, it may be quite boring and uninspiring to talk only about “what’s in the picture” when at the same time you shouldn’t be using too many abstract words. This is why, the first books I read with my 4-month-old son were simple rhymes, accompanied of course by big, colourful pictures. We both loved them and to me, it was much easier to discuss each page.
- Learn the language together with your child (said the mother who yesterday spent half her evening watching kids stories in Mandarin).
- Sing, listen to the music in the target language and enjoy it together. Children love music and it’s much easier for them to pick up and remember new words when they are accompanied by a catchy tune.
- Follow your child’s lead. Neuroscience research studies proved that babies and young children develop through emotional experiences. Join your child in their play, support them in their interests – all in the language that needs to be “worked on”.
- Watch films, programs, let your child play games (remember about the screen time rules, though)
- Don’t simplify your language only because you’re talking to a child. I know it can be a challenge because it’s hard NOT TO speak to your baby in a sweet, childish way or rather, in a way that an adult expects a child to communicate. I remember a campaign “children see children do”. It perfectly shows how adults can influence children with their behaviour. If you teach your child to speak in a simple, childish way, they will learn the language just the way you are teaching them but if you are communicating as if you were talking to an adult, don’t be surprised that your child’s vocabulary will be impressively extensive for their age.
- Make sure that your child can actually interact in both their languages. Perfectly, they need to have balanced exposure to each language (50/50 or at least 40/60). At the same time, though, the quality of this time is an even more important factor, so instead of sitting your child in front of a TV (even if it’s in their target language) make sure that instead, they can engage in a proper conversation.
You can listen to Dr. Erika Hoff at this link.
Empower your children with languages!