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Are children who mix their languages confused? Let's explore this

child development language acquisition languages linguistics Feb 17, 2021
Turquoise background with a cartoon neuron and the words 'Children who mix their languages are not confused. They are simply and very cleverly doing some language detective work.'

There is so much confusion around mixing languages, and it 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.

It can also lead to creative puns and jokes like 'heel veel liefs' in a box full of leaves for Sinterklass, an example from Amina and Manon in Multilingual is Normal (p147).

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! And before anyone mentions 'semilingualism', we will discuss that in a future post.

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

And go on, tell us your favourite examples of code switching in our community! What cute things have your bilingual bairns uttered?