3 home-language approaches if your child has communication difficulties


There are so many ideas about whether it is better to keep to one language with young children, especially if they have any difficulties that affect their communication.

The problem such children have is in learning to ‘Code-switch’: or move between two or more languages, something that most children usually do with ease.

An example of difficulty in ‘Code-switching’

My older son had this difficulty: we later found he had some high level language difficulties associated with dyslexia. He was in Pakistan in a totally Pushto speaking environment for nearly a year when he was just 3 years old, and this really affected his communication when he came into an English speaking environment: he came to the UK not speaking any English, even though prior to going to Pakistan he had been talking at his age level in English.

Now he was not able to ‘code-switch’ between English and Pashto, and did not start using English again for at least two terms in his nursery. (Nurseries and therapists know it often takes at least two terms for children to use the new language in school - sometimes for older children moving into a new language of education, teachers may not be so aware of the child's struggle to function in the new language.)

He would speak in Pushto with everyone, expecting them to understand. His Nanny, an Irish lady with 6 children of her own, would say to me, ‘He told me lots of things in Pushto today, and I said yes and no and agreed with him, and he was happy!’

Does your child also move between different languages at school and home? It's an increasingly common situation for many parents given the mutlicultural, multinational world we live in, especially in Dubai. So what can we do help aid children in bi and trilingualism, especially if they have communication difficulties?

Here are some different options:

1) Speak only one language at home

Because of my son’s difficulty in picking up English again, we decided to limit our talking at home to just English, and in this way, our son’s English improved rapidly. However, it was a decision that had a knock-on effect - a consequence: it meant that he forgot Pushto, and subsequently our younger children did not learn Pushto properly either.

Given my first hand experience in this type of situation, I do not usually suggest using only English at home, with the one child who is finding communication difficult, while the rest of the family speak in another language.

Taking such a route means that the child is being shut out of the family language, even though he is hearing it around him. He is not given the opportunity to interact and learn his ‘Mother’ tongue, the language of the heart, in which one is able to express emotion most easily.

Ultimately, it is your call – I share with you my own experiences here as a case study to inform you on and use on your own journey.

2) Use two languages in parallel

Sometimes it is better for the family to use both languages in parallel, because the languages may be so mixed up anyway!

An example of this again from my own family: I would often say things like 'Fold up your bruston', and mix the languages in a sentence. My daughter wrote in her news book at school when she was about 5, that she had a new 'Bruston'. When asked what a 'bruston' is, she thought her teacher was very strange not to know! In Pushto, it means 'Quilt', but she had not learned that word! After that, I was careful to do what I am recommending here:

In these cases, I advise the parents to work consciously to use both languages. Say a sentence in your own language, then say the same thing in English – without mixing up any words from each language. Though this can actually be very difficult to do consistently - it is often so much easier to just mix a language with another - it helps the child to learn to differentiate between the languages, and to code-switch between them.

It is something bilingual people do automatically! And so do most children, unless there is a difficulty that hinders that process.

3) Speak only in your ‘Mother tongue’ with your child if you don’t have strong English

If you are not confident in English or it is your second/weaker language, it is always much better for your family to only speak their own ‘Mother’ language. (Your child will most likely learn English at school, you will see!)

Why do I say this?

Because if the child’s parents do not speak very good English, and if they are trying to do the ‘Parallel’ language approach, it will not work. The parents will find it too difficult, and it will give a poor model of English to the child anyway.

In such cases, it is better for the family only to speak the Mother’s language, or the language most used in the home, so as to give your child a strong foundation language that he can use as a reference point when learning English or another language.

I have sometimes worked with children in school, and been very concerned because their English grammar is so poor. One child did not know pronouns, and only used his own name in talking (e.g. 'Ahmed want chocolate). I asked his Mother to come and see me to discuss how to help him, and when she came, I heard exactly the same pattern of English from her! Such is the power of language transfer in the home.

Further help

If you are really concerned about which language to use with your child, I hope these ideas may help. It is important to discuss your individual context with your child’s therapist. I would love to hear about what works for you and your family!

Warmly yours,

Margi

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