Supporting language development in a bilingual /multilingual family and environment

Bilingualism and multilingualism

A child can learn two languages either simultaneously or consecutively. When a child learns two languages in his or her growth environment before the age of three, this is referred to as simultaneous language learning. In simultaneous learning, the languages are constructed in parallel as separate systems. Simultaneous learning of two languages is typical in families where the mother and father have different native languages, such as Finnish and English, and where both parents regularly speak their own native language to their child.

Most children learn their second language after the first. Consecutive bilingualism refers to a child learning a second language after the age of three. This is often the situation in immigrant families where children first learn the native language shared by their parents and then spend their days in a Finnish-language environment after starting day care, for example. Learning a second language that facilitates everyday communication takes approximately 1.5 to 2 years for a child in full-time day care.

Children may have very multilingual growth environments. One example is a family where the mother speaks German, the father speaks Spanish, the parents communicate with each other in English, and the child starts Finnish-language day care on top of that.

The current view is that bilingualism has a positive impact on children’s cognitive development. Bilingualism or multilingualism is an advantage because it increases linguistic awareness, sensitivity to perceive linguistic phenomena and ability to analyse language.

Supporting language development

Strong command of one’s native language is a good foundation for bilingualism and multilingualism. The native language is learned at home, so parents play a large role in learning and maintaining it. Supporting the native language requires time and determination from the parents. If the parents have different native languages, they should each use their own native language when talking to the child. The native language is also the language of emotions and thought.

Good native language skills always make it easier to learn new languages. Once you have mastered the structures, vocabulary and concepts of the native language, it is easy to learn the structures (grammar), words and concepts of another language. When you can use your own native language in storytelling, description and conversation, it is easier to learn the same things in another language.

Ways to strengthen native language skills

  • always speak your native language with the child
  • read and watch suitable TV programmes with the child, tell stories, play games, sing and play in your native language
  • talk about everyday things and ask about the child’s day; listen to what the child tells you and answer questions
  • repeat and model even ordinary words and sentences in the native language often, because you might be only person whom the child hears speaking the native language
  • stay in touch with relatives and friends and organise activities connected to your own culture with others
  • arrange opportunities for the child to use the native language with other children
  • participate in native-language recreational activities together with the child
  • be proud of your native language and show it to your child.

Children may sometimes refuse to speak their native language. Parents should still consistently speak the native language, regardless of what language the child replies in. For example, a parent can pretend not to understand what the child says and ask the child to repeat it in the native language. A parent can also repeat what the child said in the other language in the native language.

Language immersion

Language immersion is a teaching method where a target language is intentionally used around the child, usually at day care and school. Language immersion is based on the idea that children acquire the immersion language in a similar way to the native language, by hearing it around them and using it in everyday communication situations.

Language immersion education aims at bilingualism. As the language immersion begins, native language skills should be advanced enough that learning a new language does not have negative effects on the development of the native language. Language immersion usually takes several years, and the teachers should be bilingual. Parents should only speak their native language to their child. Co-operation between the school and home is important.

The most common language immersion language in Finland is Swedish, and the most common language immersion programme is early complete immersion. Language immersion starts at the age of 3–6 years and continues through day care to the end of primary school.

You can find more information and commentary for and against language immersion by Googling “language immersion”, for example.