Multilingualism and Language Development
Parents often ask if speaking their native language at home will confuse their children or if it will make it harder for them to learn English.
As Speech Pathologists, we know all about the benefits of encouraging cultural and linguistic diversity in children, and we are passionate about supporting children who are exposed to multiple languages to become the best communicators they can be.
What is multilingualism?
Many of us are familiar with the term “bilingual”, which means to speak two languages. However, another term that is being used more commonly these days is “multilingual”, which means to speak two or more languages.
This term better reflects the language environment of the modern world, where two-thirds of the population speaks more than one language.
In fact, in some parts of the world, including right here in Australia, people may speak up to five or six different languages! While multilingualism is very common, many of its benefits are largely unknown.
Benefits of multilingualism
Studies show that multilingualism is associated with improved:
- Learning: Multilingualism is associated with an increase in a range of learning skills including attention, problem-solving, phonological awareness (awareness of sounds in words), vocabulary, time management and organisation.
- Social and emotional skills: Having access to languages that are spoken by immediate and extended family and social networks allows children to feel included in all aspects of their environment and can lead to an improved sense of identity and self-esteem. Additionally, it has been found that children who are exposed to multiple languages have enhanced social skills, including empathy.
What if my child is having difficulty learning language?
When children are having difficulty learning to speak, parents are often advised to speak English only with them. While this advice is well-intentioned, there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that this is effective. In fact, doing so may disadvantage a child from accessing the benefits of multilingualism mentioned above.
Speech Pathologists recommend that children with language delays or difficulties are actually exposed to language in the exact same way that their peers or siblings are (whether that means they are hearing one, two or five different languages throughout the day!).
How can I help develop language in my multilingual child?
General language development strategies also apply to multilingual children – so that means, you don’t need to do much differently! To support your multilingual child to develop their skills in any/all languages, you should try to:
- Include your child: Include your child in conversations and interactions you have with family members and friends using the language that the group is using. This will help your child feel a sense of belonging within the group.
- Get face-to-face: Regardless of the language you are speaking, ensure your child can see your face, mouth and eyes easily while you are communicating. This will help them to understand your message and begin to create messages of their own. It will also support their social communication.
- Share stories: Many popular children’s books have been published in more than one language. Look in your local library to see if they have a selection of books that are written in your home language as well as in English. When children see the same content expressed in a different language, they can start to tune in to the similarities and differences between each language. This, in turn, helps to strengthen their overall awareness of words and their meanings.
- Sing songs: Similar to books, many nursery rhymes and children’s songs have versions in other languages. Sing and play rhyming games in your home language and encourage your child to join in. You may even like to share some of these with your child’s daycare, playgroup or school!
- Use visuals and gestures: Using visuals, actions and gestures will support your child to make connections between languages, as well as between language and the real world.
Multilingualism and Speech Pathology
While it may not be possible to find a Speech Pathologist that is proficient in your home language, Speech Pathologists are trained to be culturally responsive and to support families from a range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Ask a Speech Pathologist today how you can help your multilingual child become the best communicator they can be.
Byers-Heinlein, K., & Lew-Williams, C. (2013). Bilingualism in the early years: What the science says. LEARNing landscapes, 7(1), 95.