Q&A: Questions about teaching a toddler two non-native languages

by | May 29, 2016 | Coaches, Language development, Non-native language, Toddlers | 0 comments

Questions about teaching a toddler two non-native languages


Due to the length of today’s question it has been stuctured slightly differently with the answers being added after each subquestion. Nick has answered the main part of the query and Rita has responded to the rest .

Dear Rita and colleagues,

My name is Maki, I am a Japanese mother of a 1.5-year-old son married to a Japanese and we live in Japan. My husband and I are trying to raise our son bilingually (majority language: Japanese / minority language: English) or trilingually (adding Spanish) and found the resources (including the relevant Q&As) on this website extremely useful. They were especially helpful to dispel my doubts about the possible negative effects of bilingualism as well as about raising a child in a non-native languages.

My husband and I are both native Japanese speakers. I am not a native speaker of English – I only acquired it by learning at school as a teenager. Nonetheless, I have done my Master’s at an American university and have worked for a multinational company for the past 10 years where English is the official language. I occasionally make mistakes in grammar (such as dropping articles i.e. “the” or “a”), and have slight accent.

My husband’s Spanish is also as fluent as my English (and he speaks advanced English and I speak intermediate/advanced Spanish). I currently take OPOL approach and speak to my son the whole time when I am with him (like 30 hours a week, though this includes the time when we are not really talking!). He spends the daytime at a nursery where Japanese is spoken. For now, my husband consistently speaks Japanese and I speak English to him in front of our son.

I have six questions that may not have been addressed previously (if they have been, please direct us to the right posts) and would be grateful for your advice.

Question 1

As much as I value and admire multilingualism, in the course of my professional life, I have indeed come across a number of bilingual or multilingual adults who are unable to write or speak at the level required as a professional in either of their languages. They constantly make rather basic mistakes that so-called native speakers would not make in their mother tongue as well as their second (and third) languages. They sometimes switch between languages when they are unable to explain something. From what I read on your website, this kind of confusion or incomplete acquisition is commonly seen among children but they would eventually get over it. But that does not appear to be always true from my own experiences as a professional. Why does this occur, and how could I prevent this from happening to our son? I would want him to be able to express himself perfectly at least in one language (likely Japanese as the amount of his exposure would be the largest). 

Answer 1

The degree of fluency any one person achieves is based on the amount of not only exposure, but consistent use. Even if learned as a child, unless the language is kept out throughout their life, they will not retain the same degree of fluency. Language ability is always dependent on context. Just as someone from a rural background would not be able to participate in a high-level academic discussion regardless of if it’s in their native language, someone who was raised speaking only about common family topics will have no ability at a professional level. To achieve such fluency, even for native speakers, there must be exposure and use of that type of language. When it comes down to it, there is really no difference between switching registers and switching languages. The grammar and vocabulary we use in every day conversation is very different from that used in a professional or academic setting.

A bilingual person not being fluent in any of his or her languages must be seen as an exception – like Nick says, it is a question of switching registers and having a different language dominance in different areas of life. Even monolinguals sometimes find themselves in situations where they are unsure of the appropriate register. With regards to preventing this from happening your son, I think he has his best safeguard in you who will be keenly following his language development and he will most definitely become a fluent Japanese-speaker.

Question 2

You have advised other “non-native speaker parents” that even if their children pick up parents’ grammatical errors or accent, they would get over them given quality inputs from native speakers. Are you aware of any bilingual adults (not children or adolescents) who became able to speak/write the language (that they acquired from non-native speaker parents) “perfectly” or at the level comparable to a native speaker, and to communicate fully and effectively in a professional environment? 

Answer 2

Bilingual adults always obtain fluency of the community language as it is the primary one they are exposed to and use, regardless of what the parents speak. After the age of four, peers become the linguistic role models rather than parents. Now, this only works if they community is speaking that language. If you are teaching a language other than the community language as a non-native, you are the sole source of input and the child will pick up any and all of your language as you speak it.

To continue on what Nick says, if you want your son to have a “perfect fluency” (whatever that may mean for you), then you have to arrange that kind of language exposure to your son. The same applies to any adult who learnt a language from a non-native-speaking parent – however, an adult would always also had further exposure to a language simply by speaking it with others later in life, so your question about adult bilinguals is a difficult one to answer.

Question 3

There is a chance that, as my son approaches age 4 or 5, I would have to significantly reduce the hours that I spend speaking with him in English (as he might have to prepare for an entrance exam of a private primary school, where his Japanese language skills would be tested), depending on whether his delay in acquiring Japanese can be minimised. I hear that children forget their language rather quickly. His English capacity may diminish if not go back to square one. If this occurs, does it mean that I would have wasted his/my time for speaking in the language that he would eventually lose? Or, would his “English language brain” continue to remain, and can it be “re-activated” in the future to facilitate his learning of English? 

Answer 3

The brain never actually forgets anything once it’s entered long term memory, it simply erodes the connections used to get there if not used. All you have to do is start using it again for the bridges to be rebuilt. So, you do not lose the ability, just easy access. That access bridges are rebuilt rather quickly.

Question 4

I am 80% sure that I would feel comfortable having “deep” and emotional conversations with my son in English, having handled sensitive or tricky situations in English with my supervisors/ees at work for example. However, you never know as this is the first time I am raising a human being. Further, even if I am comfortable, my son may not be, as his Japanese is already becoming the dominant language. Would forcing him to speak in English to communicate his feelings ever affect our mother-child bond? Would it be detrimental to the continuation of OPOL approach for me or my son or both to switch to Japanese when we cannot fully express our feelings? 

Answer 4

That is for you two to decided. My daughter and I do not have complex emotional conversations because my level of Mandarin is not that great. Yet, we constantly express strong emotions through tone, word, and action as best we can. She is age 4 now and this has not been much of a hindrance up until this point. Language is about communication and you get creative when you have to. What needs to be expressed, will be.

If you ever feel that you are forcing your son to use a certain language when he is trying to speak about his inner feelings or something important, then I would recommend that you forget about the language at that point and support him in any way you can to allow him communicate what he wants to tell you. Language is never more important than a close relationship with your son. By the age when you start having these discussions, your son will however be well aware of his different languages and also know that you can talk them all, so switching to the dominant language for these talks would be fine.

Question 5

My son has already started to say a few words in Japanese. I would want to re-assure him that he is saying the words correctly, by repeating what he says. Should I avoid this to stick to OPOL approach? 

Answer 5

There’s no need to repeat a language you’re not using with him as you’re using OPOL. He will get more than enough repetition from other Japanese speakers. Most children acquire a conversational degree of fluency in the community language upon entering school within 3-6 months if they are under the age of 6. So you can think that it doesn’t really matter if he learns or speaks any Japanese at all as long as at some point before the age of 6 he gets 6 months of full day exposure and use.

Overall, you can do no harm to your child. The benefits of bilingualism are very strong and the fact that he’s picking up Japanese from others means he’s already acquiring a “native speaker” linguistic system. Whatever other language you add on top of that is icing on an already made cake.

As for the sequential vs. simultaneous question, it’s pretty much a moot point. Anybody can learn a language to any degree of complexity at any age. The main points are: after the age of 6, developing a “native accent” becomes much harder. But just like actors train to pick up new accents all the time, with dedicated phonological practice, anyone 2nd language speaker can adopt an accent. It’s just easier when young. Same for grammar after the age of 12. Your 2nd language is built using the systems of the 1st rather than two complete systems being built simultaneously. This means that, while going through your 1st language to speak the 2nd, you’re more prone to error. Again, this can be completely eliminated with dedicated practice, but it just takes much more effort after the age of 12.

Question 6

We hear that according to the latest linguistic researches, multilingualism is even better than bilingualism and learning a third or fourth language has positive effects on a child’s acquisition of his or her first and second languages. I heard that the risk of the child refusing to speak the minority language(s) would be less if he or she speaks more than two languages, according to what we heard. If this is true, we could think of introducing Spanish as our son’s third language, but at the moment we feel that it may be too much for him (partly because we already have the above concerns about imperfect acquisition of all languages concerned and non-native speakers raising children in their foreign languages). Our current plan is to introduce Spanish later, probably after our son turns 3, adopting the time-and place method, with an aim only to familiarize him with the language rather than enabling him to speak it with any fluency. Do you think this is the right approach, or would you advise us to introduce Spanish immediately and fully?

I am often on the edge of giving up everything and switching completely to Japanese as I am surrounded by naysayers who criticise me for “doing more harm than good” – the prejudice against bilingualism is so deep-rooted in the Japanese society that even among the most liberal friends of mine who themselves grew up bilingual (though they are sequential bilinguals who acquired their second language as children such as age 7-11) are completely against the above mentioned plan.

Answer 6

Anecdotally and also in the experience of many plurilinguals, the more languages you know, the easier it gets to learn another one. Whether learning a third of fourth language has a positive effect on the first language of a child, is not something that can be taken for granted, though. What does happen, is that the more languages a child knows, the more awareness of the differences the child will have – which might lead to an improvement in all languages. (I haven’t found any research to back this up, though).

I would recommend that you read Professor Anita Pavlenko’s article Can a Second Language Help You Learn a Third, which touches on the topic of how languages interact during the learning process. What I would say though, either way, I don’t think this should be the deciding factor in the choice of languages you pass on to your son and when to start. Also, I have not heard about any research that claiming that children are less likely to refuse to speak a minority language if they know more than two languages – I cannot see a connection there.

Based on what you write, you may be wise to wait a while before introducing Spanish full time (or using the time and place approach). Don’t let the languages become too big a worry for you all – do you best to enjoy the learning. By all means, introduce some Spanish through songs and rhymes for example, but I would wait a few years before making a serious attempt to teach it to your son. It sounds like there will be pressure on him already at the tender age of four or five to master his Japanese at a level required for the school you would like him to attend.

I am aware that there is still some prejudice against bilingualism in Japan, so I applaud you for doing your best to raise your son to speak more than one language. Please don’t give up, but also please do not make the language situation a burden for your son, yourself and the whole family, by focusing too much effort on it. Yes, it is great to start early with languages, but with enthusiastic and supportive parents like you, your son will be able to pick up Spanish later on.

Wishing you and your family all the best on your multilingual journey!

Nick and Rita

Nick Jaworski

Nick Jaworski


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