Should I use more than one language with my child?
Bismillah al Rahman al Rahim
I am asked this question of whether to speak more than one language with children at home frequently. There is no simple answer to fit all families! I believe each child and environment needs to be evaluated first before advising that ‘only one language’ or 'multi-language' is enforced in a home.
How I assess the use of more than one language
If you ask me as a Speech Therapist for advice about whether to use more than one language with your child at home, I would almost always request an opportunity to visit you and your child in your home environment.
If that is not possible, I can get similar information by watching, or listening to, a video of family conversations during a typical family time like a birthday party or having a meal together.
This is so that I could observe the linguistic interactions between family members.
The importance of observing the home language environment
It is often difficult for parents to tell me what language they use at home, because it is such an automatic thing. Often, they may not even realise which language they are using. I myself find it hard to remember what I say in which language – Pashto or English - and when I say it! So just asking what language they use at home does not necessarily give me a clear picture of communication in their home.
Parents are often surprised when we look together at a video of them chatting at home, and see how they interchange between their own languages with each other and with their children.
The parent may say a sentence in her own language and use an English word in it, or may say an English sentence with a phrase of her own language in it.
When to use multiple languages at home
An amazing thing is, that when most children are learning to talk, they are naturally able to differentiate between which language to speak with which person - albeit with a little confusion or mixing here and there.
I noticed this when I visited some friends, whose 5 year-old child speaks Arabic with his family. Before I had even started talking with him, however, he instinctively somehow knew to address me in English.
His Mother told me that his Father speaks French as his own language, and he talks with his Father in French.
His Grandmother speaks Swedish – and yes, he speaks in Swedish with her!
When you notice your child is not becoming overly confused between languages, and is able to switch between them easily, you should feel assured that this is a good thing and multiple/bilingualism should be encouraged!
Using only one language at home?
Some of our little ones with communication difficulties who find it hard to process or use even one language properly will not be able to 'language switch' as in the example above.
The most important thing to try first is to make the differences between the languages very clear. No more mixing within sentences!
Try saying one sentence in your own language, and say it again in English. Practice being careful to do this as often as you can, especially with often-used sentences, like 'Put on your shoes'.
Give your child special, focused support by making it very clear the differences between the languages used. This may be all he needs, especially if your family are all using both languages, and he will hear them all the time.
In some cases, though, it's advisable to actually keep to one language only. When you notice your child has more severe communication difficulties or there are concerns about his progress, it is a good idea to focus on using one language only until the difficulty is overcome.
A Speech Therapist will advise for this, and will help you to make this very far-reaching decision of one or multi-language approach in the home.
Do you have a child with communication difficulties in a multi-language setting? How has your experience been?