Juliet Chubbock - speech therapist
-What are the main reasons why one language suffers more than others in multilingual children?
A child normally speaks one language less proficiently because that language has become the minority language for that child. That is to say that if one language is not spoken as much at home, with friends or at school, the child will stop learning it as efficiently.
In special cases where a child has significant learning disabilities, he or she may tend to use one language more than another because that language is easier. For example a child may “choose” Spanish over English because Spanish is more rule-based and easier to read and write. But this is unusual.
- How do you assess whether a child is suffering in one language more than another?
To do this formally, a child would need to be assessed by a Speech and Language Therapist who speaks both languages to a good level. But you can glean useful information by talking to the different language-speakers with whom the child interacts. For example you could ask the nanny and nursey teachers how the child makes her needs known, and whether she is able to follow requests.
- Is it more common to see problems in children speaking English when they have just one native English speaker as a parent?
As long as the child doesn’t have an underlying communication delay, and as long as English hasn’t become very much a minority language for that child, there should be no problems.
- When do think is the best age for children to be exposed to more than one language in order for them to become bilingual/multilingual? Are there different levels of Biligualism/Multilingualism?
It is generally agreed that problems are less likely to occur (in vulnerable children) if languages are introduced simultaneously, and as early as possible. But it is perfectly viable to introduce subsequent languages later, at school for example. In most individuals, a second language can be learnt easily (and with little or no accent) if introduced before puberty.
- Is it confusing for a child to be learning one language at school and another at home? Is it better for a child to be more proficient in one language before mastering another?
In a normally developing child, this would not be confusing. It is not necessary for a child to be at a certain “level” in one language before introducing a second. However, there is one thing to be aware of. The first language(s) that the child is exposed to, should be delivered in a natural and complete way, which means parents should communicate with their child in the parent’s native language (or a language that they speak to a native level).
- Do bilingual/multilingual children's speech generally develop later than children learning just one language?
Significant language delays are not caused by bilingualism. But many children who are exposed to more than one language go through phases of being less expressive, or continue making certain errors for slightly longer. These are not normally problematic.
- Is it true that a child’s brain develops quicker when exposed to different languages at an early age?
Research does suggest that there are cognitive benefits to being bilingual from early on. Such children certainly achieve a superior awareness of sounds and of different ways of saying things, and therefore of seeing the world. These early advances may in turn speed up other areas of cognitive development, for example concept development.
- As a speech therapist, how do you address the problems children face when one language suffers more than another?
It is important to ascertain why one language is poor. It may be because: a) that language is very much a minority language for the child, or: b) there is a language delay or disorder which would have been present in the child even in a monolingual environment.
According to the child’s situation, he or she may need therapy, or the family may need to look at how to increase exposure to the language that suffers.
- How do you deal with a child who refuses to speak a second language altogether?
Some children become passive users of a certain language. For example many children understand the native language of one parent, but tend not to speak it. The best way to avoid this is to act early on and seek out other speakers of the said language, and activities that require it. This way, the child learns the usefulness of the minority language in a wider context, and there is a genuine need for him to use it.
Management of older children who won’t speak a language (despite knowledge of it) would depend on each child’s individual case. Options are gentle teaching techniques, confidence building exercises, or slight alterations of speaking habits at home.
- Approximately how long does it take for a child to ‘catch up’?
This depends on the individual case; the child’s understanding of the languages, opportunities to use them, motivation, age, lifestyle and linguistic ability.
- What can parents do to ensure their children are comfortable speaking all the languages they are exposed to?
Language acquisition is very resilient in most children. However, it is necessary for a child to have access to a variety of interactions and activities in each language for him or her to maintain proficient levels throughout childhood. For example, if a certain language is spoken only at home (and not extended even with books,) then it is likely that by adolescence the child will be able to speak the language with a native accent, but with a paucity of vocabulary and a limited ability to express herself outside of family situations. The following are suggestions for enriching a child’s experience in a minority language: visits to the country where the language is spoken, play dates with other children, books, games, story tapes, television and cinema, and using the language when on family outings.