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Jun 012017
 

How is a baby’s language development impacted by a nanny’s language and accent?

 

Question

Hello

We are a Greek family living in Lausanne, Switzerland. We speak Greek at home and French at work. When my wife will return to work after her maternity leave, our daughter will be 8 months old.

We plan to hire a full-time nanny until our daughter will be 18-20 months old and afterwards continue with public daycare (where French is obviously spoken). One of our best nanny-candidates is of Spanish origin, and speaks French with a very strong Spanish accent. I would like to ask you:

1. Can the sudden exposure of an 8-month-old infant (who is used to hearing only the parents’ mother tongue) to a foreign language harm her development of the mother tongue? Could this perhaps even lead to a slower language development?

2. We would like our daughter to acquire an almost native French accent, as she is born here and will go to French speaking school. Is it a problem that the nanny for this limited, but crucial time, is not a native speaker?

Thank you very much. I am looking forward to your advice.
Costas

Answer

Dear Costas,

thank you for your questions about your daughter’s language development.

Your home language with your baby is Greek and the community language is French. You are planning to hire a full-time nanny from when your daughter is 18-20 months old. Then she will attend public day care where French is the language. One of your best nanny candidates speaks Spanish as a native language and French with a very strong Spanish accent.

1. You would like to know if sudden exposure of an 8-month-old to an unfamiliar language will harm development of her mother tongue. The simple answer to this question is no, it will not harm development of her mother tongue. Of course it will mean she has less exposure to Greek but it is still the language of your home and fundamental to your emotional connection with your daughter and to her connection with extended family. Children are wired to acquire languages and they don’t approach language acquisition like we might think they do. Children acquire languages unconsciously through quality input from the significant people in their environment and through opportunities to use the languages.

You also wonder if the acquisition of a second language at this point will lead to slower language development. The consensus in the research is that acquiring a second language does not cause any delays in a child’s language development. It is also important to remember that there is a lot of individual variation in children’s language development. Depending on where you read about the topic, first words can appear anywhere between 8 and 15 months – that is a long time frame!

The main thing for your daughter’s language development is high quality input from the people important to her and lots of opportunities to use the language and communication skills that she is developing. Here’s a little video I’ve made on tuned in communication with babies and infants: Tuned in Communication. Here’s another one on reading to your baby: Reading to your Baby, and another one on how to sing to your baby to encourage language and communication: Singing with your Baby.

2. Your next question is about the impact of the nanny’s strong Spanish accent when speaking French on your child’s speech development when it comes to French. This is not so easy a question to answer. I’ve done a literature search and there is very little recent work on this topic that I could find. I asked a colleague of mine who has done a lot of research in the area of speaking more than one language. He said that what would most likely happen is that initially, your daughter’s accent would be close to that of the nanny. Then, as she spends more time with her peers, that her accent would become more like theirs. We do tend to accommodate to the speech and language of those around us. It’s not a problem that the nanny is not a native French speaker at this time.

It’s also important that the nanny communicates with your daughter in the language she feels most comfortable in. Especially with young infants where we do a lot of vocal play and ‘baby-talk’, it needs to feel right to the adult. I could only do this in English with my little girl, not in Irish although I do speak it. For the nanny, this may be Spanish and she might even find herself speaking it in spite of her intention to speak French. At this early stage of development, language and communication are about ways of engaging with an infant, of developing a bond with them and it needs to feel natural to the adult speaker – so the nanny could speak Spanish. Then as your daughter gets older, you could begin to introduce her to French which she will also encounter in day care and pre-school. And of course, language is only one of the factors you are considering when finding someone to look after your little girl.

Kind regards

Mary-Pat


Mary-Pat O'Malley-Keighran

Mary-Pat O'Malley-KeighranMary-Pat is a lecturer, author, researcher, speech and language therapist and lover of all things to do with speech, language and communication. She has over 20 years’ experience of working with families and 14 years’ experience of teaching in university. Mary-Pat has done extensive research in communication: parents’ experiences of speech and language therapy, story-telling in bilingual children, how newspapers tell stories about adults with communication problems, how midwives and pregnant women talk to each other during hospital visits, and more. She is passionate about humanizing the health care and education systems by showcasing the importance of how we say what we say. She also passionate about understanding children’s perspectives in communication with adults so that we can communicate more compassionately with them. Mary-Pat is currently a lecturer in speech and language therapy at NUI Galway on the lovely west coast of Ireland and you can find her blog at Talk Nua.
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