Should I interfere with my bilingual children's speech patterns?
November 11, 2008 7:16 PM   Subscribe

To what degree should I moderate my children's use of language at home? I am raising six children aged 10 and below outside the US with my wife who is an non-native English speaker.

I want them to be fully bilingual. As it is, they speak with my wife in her language, with me in English with tons of foreign vocabulary and a fair amount of imported grammar, and with each other almost exclusively in their mother's tongue. Example: "Me play-play only" = My four-year-old's way of telling me "I'm just kidding", a word-for-word translation of "Saya main-main saja" from the national language. My wife and I speak to each other in both her language and mine, since we're both still trying to improve our respective foreign language skills.

My questions are these: What positive steps can I take to ensure that they are able to speak English as well as they speak their other language? Is there any benefit to enforcing an English-only policy in the house? Is there any benefit to correcting their grammar or vocabulary when they speak directly to me?

Let me be clear that I am happy they are proficient in their other language, and I accept that they may come to feel more comfortable speaking with one another in that language, even when/if they are perfectly fluent in English. I don't feel left out from that, as I am fluent enough in that language to understand them. I just want to make sure that English will be a native language for them, one that they can speak as effortlessly and comfortably as I do.

Pointers to any resources online would be greatly appreciated.

Inspired to ask by the tremendous responses here
posted by BinGregory to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I can at least provide a bit of anecdotal information that may help. My parents are both from the Netherlands, but I'm born and raised in Canada. My parents always speak to each other in Dutch, so during my earliest years before starting school, I only spoke Dutch, and basically spoke it like any child my age in Holland would. Once I started going to school, it only took a few years before I only spoke English (even to my parents, who still spoke Dutch to me). I remember the first time I realized that my dreams had switched to English. Now, as an adult, I can still understand Dutch quite well, but I'm uncomfortable speaking it.

If I were in your situation, given my experience, I would say do your best to encourage your children to speak English at home as much as possible. I imagine that you have the advantage that they will probably still be exposed to quite a lot of English in their regular lives since it's the world's dominant language.
posted by Emanuel at 7:31 PM on November 11, 2008

Is there any benefit to correcting their grammar or vocabulary when they speak directly to me?

The answer to this is most assuredly no. I have hours of video and pages and pages of transcripts of parents interacting with children (I study child language acquisition) and even in a monolingual situation, when parents correct their children on matters of syntax, the children routinely ignore the corrections. In fact, parents don't tend to correct children as much on syntax as they do on facts. There are lots of studies that support the claim that parental language "instruction" has little, if any, effect on the first language acquisition process. At any rate, your best bet is to keep them constantly exposed to English, and the most influential exposure comes from a parent (i.e. you, in this case). Also, if your wife feels comfortable speaking in English to the children, you don't need to worry about the fact that her English might not be perfect. Children are easily able to learn a language "correctly" even with incorrect input. It seems like you can read a decent portion of this book online via google books: Raising a Bilingual Child.

As an aside, I find it totally adorable that they're bringing reduplication into their English -- I assume the other language in question here is Malay? They're lucky that you're thinking about this now and enthusiastic about encouraging them.
posted by tractorfeed at 7:44 PM on November 11, 2008 [11 favorites]

Yes, just keep them continuously engaged with people who speak both languages from the earliest possible moment. Pre-pubescent kids are sponges for language-- they learn not to confuse the languages by context, they know who speaks what, basically. So long as you give them lots of exposure to English from birth, they should speak it fluently.
posted by Maias at 7:53 PM on November 11, 2008

More anecdotal information from a Montrealer - this issue comes up a lot here, and from the parents I've known and the (many) newspaper and magazine stories that have popped up about this over the years, kids generally have a transitional period where they confuse things, but eventually things just click (and from what I've heard it's almost as quick as that) and kids figure out that there are different languages and that to be understood it's best to keep each language in its own bucket and choose which to use and when.

Someone smarter than me about this kind of thing will be able to write more about "code switching" which I believe is the term used for this process of figuring it out and integrating multiple languages on a practical level.
posted by mikel at 7:53 PM on November 11, 2008

Yes, the other language is Malay. Thanks for the input so far.
posted by BinGregory at 7:54 PM on November 11, 2008

What language is their schooling in? If it is in "native tongue", you may wish to encourage English at home. If English is the language of school (and therefore - likely the language of talk with school friends), you may want to consider dis-incentivizing English at home. I wouldn't worry too much about correcting grammar and vocabulary for the younger ones - they'll gradually learn what's right from listening and reading the respective languages. For the older kids, you'll want to ensure that grammar, vocabulary and especially pronunciation are all on improving tracks - addressing any problems in those areas individually with those children.
posted by birdsquared at 7:54 PM on November 11, 2008

Some anecdotes: I was raised in an environment where people spoke 4 different languages -- English, Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam. Worried that I was taking a long time to start speaking my parents enforced an English-only policy when speaking to me. I ended up very fluent in English but I have a very halting familiarity with the other languages my family speaks because I never learnt them as a baby and never really put in the effort to learn them later. My cousin on the other hand grew up hearing both Tamil and English spoken in the house and is a very fluent speaker of both. So basically based strictly on personal experience: I think you should speak both languages in the home. Babies are remarkably good at figuring out the syntax of two languages simultaneously. In fact I just attended a seminar about this very subject with the thesis that languages have evolved culturally in such a way as to allow for their easy transmission, even with very high signal to noise ratios. So don't sweat it too much -- babies will figure things out.
posted by peacheater at 7:57 PM on November 11, 2008

Birdsquared - the public schools are just as confused as I am, it seems. As of two years ago, the public schools are Malay-medium, except for Math(s) and Science, which are taught in English. They learn English as a subject, along with Arabic and Mandarin.
posted by BinGregory at 8:03 PM on November 11, 2008

My sister in law is French, married to an Australian in Australia. They both speak English and French to the kids (5, 2, and 0) - she tried to enforce a one-language per parent rule, however it never stuck, mostly because my brother thought it was silly. The five year old is certainly fluent in both languages, however his french speaking increased dramatically after spending two months in France at the age of 3 - before that he wouldn't speak french to anyone except his parents (even when addressed in french), after that it was as though he had realised that other people speak french too and it was ok to use it with them.
posted by jacalata at 8:12 PM on November 11, 2008

I'll just add that just about everything I've read from early childhood development says that children learn language by modeling off of the people around them, and can master multiple languages this way by surprisingly young ages. Correcting them might not be beneficial, because they are likely picking up the "mistake" from the language around them or hitting a developmental stumbling block they will grow out of.

My only suggestion is to read books and periodicals to them in both languages because that seems to help with the next big bridge from spoken to written language.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:25 PM on November 11, 2008

They'll be fine. As long as they are exposed to fluent speakers of both their languages, they'll figure it out just fine. Kids are very adaptable. The grammar will sort itself out, just make sure your/her use of the grammar is language-correct.

(Multi-language ex-child speaking, with siblings and know others in the same language circumstances. It's a good thing)
posted by defcom1 at 8:58 PM on November 11, 2008

(I left out the paragraph where I complain that their English is lagging noticeably behind their Malay across the board, that the quality of English instruction at school is poor, and that there is a kind of pidgin/creole English spoken widely that is not helpful (IMO) to learning standard English for academic/business purposes. These are the issues that prompted the questions.)
posted by BinGregory at 9:02 PM on November 11, 2008

Here's my experience, which may or may not help you, but is pretty close to what your kids are experiencing:

I was born in Malaysia to Bangladeshi parents. Apparently when I was very very little, I used to say the same thing twice in two languages, Bengali and English - "open khulo", "gimme dao", simple stuff. Then I suddenly stopped talking.

My parents were frantic and thought I had gone deaf. I was sent to every variation of doctor, therapist, and psychologist available (I have hazy memories of a speech therapist in Singapore). One doctor told them that I wasn't deaf, my hearing was fine - but there were three languages going on in the house and I was getting confused. He recommended that they pick one and stick to it.

They chose English, as they weren't fluent enough in Malay to be useful and hardly anyone else in the country would have known Bengali. I was raised on English media (I was a voracious reader, much to my parents' bemusement), was spoken to in English - almost all my interactions were in English. By the time I entered kindergarden I had started talking again, and until now I can't shut up.

Kindy was English-medium, with some Malay and Chinese classes. I was OK with Malay but found Chinese extremely difficult, mainly because I couldn't make head or tail of the script (even though I had Chinese neighbours). In primary school, which was Malay-medium, I was placed in a multi-racial class with an English-speaking teacher because they were worried I wouldn't understand Malay well. However, I picked up the language quickly, and soon even outperformed the native Malay speakers.

I have near native skills in English (I would be a "native" speaker if my background didn't make it implausible), am reasonably fluent in Malay, but speak Bengali like a little kid. I can't read or write Bengali, though funnily enough due to Islamic classes I can read & write Arabic but not have a clue what the words mean. I'm slightly sad that I can't read Bengali, because I'm currently rediscovering my roots (for a long time I felt cultureless). As for Malay - since I've been in Australia, my skills are slipping (it takes me SO LONG to read Malay paragraphs) but once I'm back in Malaysia I get it all back again.

My mother told me that I used to speak "perfect English" but since I entered school I was influenced by my peers and started speaking Manglish, much like your kids. Ironically I've found that since I've been in Australia my English skills are deteriorating - the native speakers here don't speak so well sometimes!

You'll probably find that if you raise your kids to speak in one language, they'll end up correcting YOUR grammar because they pick it up so quickly! School might undo all of that though, if they're often around people who don't speak quite the same way they do. I didn't have a hard time transitioning to different languages so I think your kids will be OK if you keep them to one language at home (now even my parents speak a mix of Bengali, English, and Malay to me). It's lucky that Malay and English use the same script, so the transitions are easier.

The most important thing I'd advise though is to check how English is taught at their school, especially now that they're teaching Maths and Science in English. There have been plenty of reports about the atrocity of English in public Malaysian schools - indeed, I often found English classes to be a big joke. They may be picking up bad English skills there from teachers who don't know any better, and/or be penalised for their English skills in class (I used to be told that my writing was too complex). Don't let the teachers get you down - encourage your children to love and hold mastery of any language they desire.
posted by divabat at 9:07 PM on November 11, 2008 [3 favorites]

(I left out the paragraph where I complain that their English is lagging noticeably behind their Malay across the board, that the quality of English instruction at school is poor, and that there is a kind of pidgin/creole English spoken widely that is not helpful (IMO) to learning standard English for academic/business purposes. These are the issues that prompted the questions.)

Ha! I thought that might be the case!

I get my English fix (when school was disappointing) by reading like a monster. Get them to libraries and bookstores, and get them reading. It will help them a LOT.

Manglish is cool! But yes, it would not work for academic or business purposes. I've cringed at my writing from my first university - and I was top of the class then! Do take note that if your kids start speaking proper English amongst their peers (or even their teachers), they may get a lot of flack for being "snobbish" (sombong) or being a "show-off" - I got that so many times. Those people are stupid, but that's the sort of people you'll find in a country like this.
posted by divabat at 9:11 PM on November 11, 2008

just make sure your/her use of the grammar is language-correct.

Really, you don't have to worry about this. If you are a native speaker of English, just speak English around your kids and engage them in conversation in English. Don't worry about the fact that you make errors when speaking (everyone does, in their native language, every day, and yet kids still acquire languages). And if your wife's English is not perfect, this is not at all harmful. They'll likely end up preferring to speak to each of you in one particular language (which might not be the same for each of you) and this might change as they change peer groups (e.g. when they enter a new school, etc.) In the end if you keep speaking to them in English at least until the so-called "critical period" for language acquisition, usually thought to be somewhere around 10-12 years of age, they'll pick up English.

On preview -- I second the idea of encouraging reading in English! If it's feasible, get them lots of fun books in English that they'll want to read, so the motivation will come from them to acquire more vocabulary.
posted by tractorfeed at 9:23 PM on November 11, 2008

Let them watch English television and DVDs, as well -- it'll be an example of clearly spoken, mostly grammatical English for them to pick up on.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:38 AM on November 12, 2008

omigosh they're adorable!!!

Are you planning to stay where you're at, or eventually move to an English speaking country? I would think this would affect the answers. I mean, WHY do they need to speak English fluently? Business? A cultural connection to (presumably) your heritage?
posted by desjardins at 9:16 AM on November 12, 2008

Fascinating to hear your story, divabat. I lived in the U.S. for the first two years of my life and was just starting to speak (English) when my family moved to Poland. I shut up too, and when I started speaking again six or nine months later, I was fluent in both English and Polish. I had a Polish nanny there, and I suppose that she spoke to me in a different language and I "got confused" too, like you.

We moved back to the U.S. when I was about four, and by the time I was six (and had been going to English-speaking elementary school for a year) I had lost my Polish entirely. I like to think that it's buried somewhere in the back of my mind, but who knows. Every now end then I'll hear an unknown Czech word that I mysteriously recognize (I live in Prague now), but I don't know if that's the buried Polish or just passive language acquisition.

Dunno how this helps you, BinGregory, other than as an anecdote that children certainly can forget languages as quickly as they learn them. I suspect that if you make an effort to speak to them in English, however, they'll be fluent speakers.
posted by DLWM at 11:37 AM on November 12, 2008

Thanks, desjardins. I think so too but I'm awfully biased. I'm agnostic about returning to the states, but even in Malaysia, English is fundamental to worldly success. Malaysia itself is conflicted about the national language - the largest public university is English medium, for example. There hasn't been the kind of clear national push for bahasa that there has been in Indonesia. There's good and bad to that too, but the bottom line is, they need to have English.

DLWM, I'm painfully aware of that. I spoke Hindi fluently when I lived there from 2-6 years of age. My parents aren't Indian, and so it all disappeared within a year, same as you, and a trip back as a teenager didn't bring back a drop of it. I talked to a language professor about it when I was in college and the answer I got was that the threshold for permanent acquisition of language was reading and writing. So it is unlikely that you or I have polish or hindi tracks in our brains, sad to say, though maybe tractorfeed or one of the other linguistic gurus on MeFi can comment on that.

Tractorfeed, that book you linked isn't available for preview. Is it worth buying or do you have other recommendations?
posted by BinGregory at 6:47 PM on November 12, 2008

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