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Beware of those two...languages: How to avoid mixing languages


Astratto, acquarello, 3 anni


Bilingualism is often subject to bias and is still viewed with suspicion, especially by people uninformed. How often do you hear negatieve reactions also come from people who should instead be interested in the welfbeing of children and that, conversely, with their inflexibility, hinder them in their development.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association of Maryland warns about the possibility that our children grewing up bilingual in the first instance can mix languages (code-switching). It explains that this can happen in cases where a concept is not easily expressed or translated into another language.

About  this point, allow me to express my concern and I ask you to confirm or refute on the basis of your experiences. I do not think that a child consciously seeks more appropriate words to express a concept, and not finding them, takes refuge in another language. I rather think  that it is a question of habit. If the child is accustomed to express him/herself in a certain situation (playing, eating, etc..) in a language, he/she will have a vocabulary in that language more suitable to the situation than in the other one.

Francois Grosjean (Bilingual, Life and Reality ", 2010, p. 29 et seq.) argues that bilinguals acquire and use their languages for different purposes in different areas and with different people (what he calls the" complementarity principle "). Each aspect of the life of a bilingual often requires the use of a different language. The better you know a language, the more will be the situations in which that language will be used. Specifically, I have seen cases of children who expressed themselves in their home language, interposing a "attend" (French for "wait") here and there, probably the most frequently repeated word in their kindergarten.

There will be thousands of these examples, however, if children are not corrected, they will tend to mix more frequently and easily. All we should know is what is the goal to be achieved. If you are hoping that your child will reach a correct and thorough knowledge in both of his/her languages, you must be consistent and consequent in your choice. This is what the experts never stop repeating, and in my experience as a bilingual children's mother I always try to find corresponding words in Italian.

My children do not attend school in Italian and sometimes they struggle to report to me their day, looking for the right words to refer to what happened in another language, but I always push them to find ways, expressions, to circumvent the problem if they do not know the word, in short, I push them to express themselves in a understandable and correct manner. For their part, they reward me with a consistent method according to which they only speak Italian in my presence, even among themselves. Obviously, in the rare cases where this does not happen, I don't intervene, but generally they do speak my language spontaneously in my presence, encouraging the creation of a ludic vocabulary that they would not otherwise have from their kindergarten.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association suggests, in the same article, that another factor that leads to mix languages is that one language can be perceived as a more formal language, used mainly outside home, and the other one as a more familiar, used more for "internal"communication . I can not say if children can actually feel such a difference; once they start school, of course, some topics covered in the lessons have a peculiarity and a vocabulary that is not used in everyday language. Hence the need to add readings and "lessons" in various forms to enable the child to expand his/her vocabulary on specific topics and not of daily use. Therefore, this gap between formal language-familiar language can be bridged with the commitment of parents and children, always with the aim to achieve an equivalent degree of proficiency between the two languages. The American society, however, assures us that the tendency to mix gradually disappears and the children will be able to discern between the use of their two languages.

An important consideration is that consistency in the use of a language by a parent can help to avoid confusing the two languages. Now we come to the point: it is true that bilingualism can be the cause of increased language disorders? The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, which deals, among other things, with language disorders, informs us that language disorders are less likely in cases of early and simultaneous bilingualism. The introduction of a second language in pre-school stage can be a major risk factor in this regard. Delays in language development and a limited second language knowledge are some of the current opinions. In conclusion, we should be alerted but not alarmed, because each child is different and the studies conducted so far are aimed at groups with specific characteristics that may not correspond to our personal or family situation. For me, and I hope for you readers, it is still important to be confronted to different opinions and experiences.



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