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Feb 052015
 

Question

Hi, 

I’m a Spanish-speaking mother married to a German speaker, living in Germany. Each of us uses our native language when interacting with our 4-month daughter – basically: one parent one language. 

I am now looking at kindergartens for my daughter to go to once she’s one year old. I have found a “bilingual” Spanish-German nearby. This would be perfect for our daughter!

I have recently had the opportunity to visit the facilities and have a chat with the two carers. (It’s a very small crèche) They are both originally from Spanish-speaking countries and have been living in Germany for some years. That is, their level of German is not comparable to that of a native speaker. However, this hasn’t been as concerning to me as the fact that they mix the languages when addressing the children. (This I have observed myself.) And I’m not talking about code-switching, but rather staying an utterance in German followed by the translation into Spanish. I might be wrong, but, to me, that’s a rather unnatural. When talking about their daily routine, they mentioned they do a “morning circle” where they sing songs in German and then their “equivalent” in Spanish, eg first the German version of Frère Jacques and then the Spanish.

When asked about their linguistic approach more in detail, they said that this concept has worked for the kids they’ve got so far (mainly of German parents, who are happy to see their children babbling a couple of Spanish words at home). I was curious to know what they do with children of bilingual families. Their answer was clear: they address them in exactly the same way as monolinguals, that is, mixing languages.

Overall, the crèche is a nice, cosy place and the staff is really friendly. I am however concerned about their approach to bilingualism. Are my concerns grounded or am I exaggerating? Does this model also work for bilingual children? Any advice on the subject would be much appreciated. 

By the way, I am really grateful to Rita and her team for having created this website and newsletter and given bilingualism (multilingualism) the room and voice it deserves. 

Saludos y mil gracias.

Kind regards, 

Beatriz

 

Answer

Dear Beatriz

Thank you for your question and kind feedback. I am glad that you find the site useful!

The term ‘mixing languages’ refers to someone using more than one language in the same sentence and not being aware of which word belongs to which languages.  Small bilingual children quite often go through a phase of mixing their languages until they learn to keep them separate. ‘Code switching’ refers to the phenomenon when a bilingual person consciously uses more than one language when speaking to another bilingual who understands the languages used. ‘Code switching’ is not random, but adheres to a set of rules. From your description, it seems like the carers are neither mixing, nor code-switching, but rather alternating between Spanish and German, or actually speaking both of them. They do this by repeating each sentence they say in the other language. Of practical reasons they use the same approach independent of whether the child already knows both languages or not. I agree that this is not a very natural way to speak, but I cannot see it doing any harm nor confuse the children.

Since you are using the one parent, one language (OPOL) strategy at home, your daughter will have a role model for each language and will already be used to hearing both Spanish and German. She will recognize the languages as “mummy’s language” and “daddy’s language” and be aware that the carers know and use both of these.

However, I can understand your concern – I presume that you would like to see more consistency? It is true, that the less exposure a child gets to a language, the greater the need for consistency is. Recent research has however shown that children even in families where parents switch between languages can still become bilingual, providing there is enough of other chances to hear and interact in the languages the children are learning. By your OPOL approach you are already providing the consistency and to me the crèche sounds like a great option for your daughter – not least because you are happy with other aspects of it.

You did not mention how much time you will be spending with your daughter once she attends the crèche, neither which language you and your husband speak together, i.e. how much “Spanish-only” time she will have. As Spanish is the minority language, you cannot overdo the Spanish exposure – German she will learn in any case. It might be a good idea to create a Family Language Plan, as I describe in my book “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, so that you get a realistic picture of how much exposure she will get to each language.

Also, are there other parents with a similar language setup whose children already attend the crèche? If yes, it would be a good idea to ask them how they have found their children’s language skills developing.

Please do not hesitate to ask any follow-up questions and it would be lovely to hear what you decide and how you get on.

Kind regards
Rita

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  4 Responses to “Q&A: Bilingual child minders speaking more than one language – good or bad?”

  1. The important thing here is that she gets a lot of input in Spanish, since German is the majority language. My experience with the “repeat the sentence in every language” kind of input is that the child just waits for the sentence to be said in the language they are most comfortable with. They don’t listen to the input in the other language because they know they don’t have to. They still might pick up a few words in the target language, but it’s not the same as consistent input. This approach has been tried extensively in public schools in California, and I have yet to see children pick up the “other” language at any level of fluency. You have to have input where the child’s brain has to process the language and make sense of it, not be given an immediate translation which takes away any need to process.

  2. Both Rita and Michelle make great points. Switching between the languages is not going to create any kind of confusion, but it’s also not really going to support learning of the minority language. It would be much better to split parts of the day up with only one language used or even do similar activities back to back in different languages.

    A really key component I didn’t see mentioned was speaking. It doesn’t matter much if the children are hearing the language if they aren’t encouraged to speak it as well. I would really focus on what they’re doing to build speaking ability and how they ensure it’s going beyond repetition of sounds and onto independent language use.

    • Nick, don’t forget that there is always a “silent period” before speaking starts. Trying to force a child to speak too soon will not result in better language learning. They must have a lot of input before output begins. This is true for monolingual children…then don’t speak until they are between one and two years of age. As long as there are other children speaking the language around them , they will feel the desire to speak and communicate in the target language without any need for adult interference. If you are talking about older children and teens, it might be necessary to urge them to speak if there are a lot of children in the same “language learning boat” as they are. They don’t want to be embarrassed so they don’t take the first step.

      • The silent period was something Krashen observed in some learners, but is not something that needs to happen. Most modern researchers in SLA no longer mention it as it’s not considered relevant to language acquisition, just something that could be the case for some young learners. Learners under the age of 6 in an immersion environment for a significant portion of their day sometimes listen for a period of up to 3-6 months and then start speaking. However, this only works if 1) significant portions of the day are in the language and 2) if there is a need for the child to eventually speak – usually to participate more fully with their peers. In all other cases, productive skills need to be build just as much as receptive, often more. Just like you do in a monolingual setting, you expect your child to use more and more words as their ability in the language grows. Once children are verbal, they can be encouraged to use the target language and they will very quickly. It’s necessary to build in a need for speaking into the child’s environment for productive ability to continue to develop. Without this need, they will remain passively bilingual.

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