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Won’t introducing my child to new languages cause them to mix their languages & they’ll end up really confused?

child development language acquisition Aug 15, 2022

Parents who are raising their children as bi/ multilingual, or who are simply introducing their little ones to a new language can often be met with the assumption (by well-meaning friends & relations) that their children are confused because they mix their languages.

But this worries me that parents and children are often left feeling ashamed of this very natural, normal, and creative by-product of bilingualism.

Mixing languages is a stage in the process of language acquisition.

We naturally have a more dominant language, which changes depending on context and purpose: as a new parent, I didn't have any baby vocabulary in French, even though I'm a fluent French speaker, so I had to keep asking 'comment dit-on nappy en francais?'

This didn't mean I was confused: I was LEARNING.

Babies mix languages too if they are learning more than one. They gradually learn the context appropriate for each one (such as speaking Spanish at home and English at school) and as long as they have plenty of language-rich input, they will learn both.

Code switching involves knowing both languages really well already, and speaking in a way that maintains the grammatical structures of both languages. 'Maman, s'il te please' is a lovely example from Dr Charles Brasart in Multilingual is Normal (2020, p132) as is 'tu peux l'open it s'il te plaît?' from @aelleaelle on Twitter.

First-off: code switching v code mixing
Code switching is a 'strategic resource' according to King & Mackey (2007). It is 'what proficient bilinguals do to express themselves and complex ideas.' Code mixing is 'what learners do when they are acquiring two languages' (King & Mackey, 2007).

In other words, code switching is a sign of mastery of two or more languages! Whereas code mixing is something we all do. 'Como se dice rainbow in italiano?' It's a way of finding out information, whilst keeping the conversation flowing, using the words available to us in our linguistic repertoire.

So, in contexts where the adults do not mix their languages, children will learn not to mix. Thus if grandparents only speak one of the children's languages, the children will learn it's not going to get them what they want if they use their other language in that context for that purpose.

However, if code switching is part of community life, children will nimbly join in with that too.

So don't worry about it. Bilinguals are not two monolinguals in one body: they are linguistic acrobats with a whole paintbox of possible linguistic combinations! Children under the age of four years might have a phase of mixing their two+ languages, but it's not confusion. It's working out who speaks what and when to use each language. They grow out of it through trial and gentle error (no need to tell them off – they are busy language scientists!)

So, even at the babbling stage, long before children speak a word, babies mix their languages. They cry and make sounds across their language repertoires. The process is natural, and part of the acquisition of multiple languages.

Have a listen to Eowyn Crisfield on Episode 20 of The Language Revolution podcast if you'd like to hear us discussing this topic.

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