Children are often sensitive to the things that happen around them. They tend to be good at learning new tasks, and many of them are astute observers of the different ways that people speak. Bilinguals often mix words and phrases from their languages when they speak. This behavior, called code-switching or code-mixing, is a normal part of bilingual speech. There is a common misconception that when bilinguals code-switch or code-mix, they are confusing their languages. However, research shows that this behavior is not a reflection of confusion, and in fact, it observes its own systematic patterns. In addition, bilingual children tend to learn to be sensitive to the situation they are in, and understand what language is appropriate to use in a given context. For more information on code-switching and code-mixing in bilingual children, visit the following web page from Head Start, and check out the resources on our links page.
Children learn to speak without studying language explicitly. Language is part of the natural learning process of a child, just like learning to eat or to walk. Parents can support the learning process by providing lots of exposure. If both languages are used at home, and if children are exposed to them in different situations and hear them from different speakers, it provides a great learning base. Another good learning tool is to create and promote situations where the child needs to use both of their languages, for example, when speaking with family members.
This method is called the “one-parent-one-language” method. It is a good approach but it is certainly not the only way, and there are many “right” ways to support your child in acquiring their languages. Providing different sources of exposure to the home languages can be extremely helpful. This could be a person at your child’s daycare, a family member, playgroups, and many other sources. Books, nursery rhymes, movies, and music are also great sources for language exposure. For more information on different ways of raising bilingual children, check out this article from Byers-Henlein and Lew-Williams (2013).
Sometimes parents worry that when their children start using more English at school, they will forget their home language. It is natural for kids to want to use the language their teachers and friends use in school, even outside of the school context. By providing lots of exposure and helping the child to see how their languages are useful, for example, when talking to a grandparent, you can help your child build a positive attitude toward being bilingual.
Some useful references for further reading:
Byers-Henlein, K. and Lew-Williams, C. Bilingualism in the Early Years: What the Science Says. LEARNing Landscapes, [S.l.], v. 7, n. 1, p. 95-112, July 2013. ISSN 1913-5688. Available at: <http://www.learninglandscapes.ca/index.php/learnland/article/view/Bilingualism-in-the-Early-Years-What-the-Science-Says>. Date accessed: 26 feb. 2018. Copyright (2018) by LEARN, www.learnquebec.ca; reproduced with permission from the publisher.
Sorace, A. and Ladd, D.R. 2004. Raising bilingual children. Series: Frequently Asked Questions, Linguistic Society of America. Accessible at: http://www.bilingualism-matters.ppls.ed.ac.uk/parents-questions/frequently-asked-questions/
Website of Head Start, an initiative by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/browse/keyword/dual-language-learners?page=3
See also the links on our links and other resources page.