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The bilingual child and language.

The importance of creating the right language learning environment.

Date of writing: 1st August 2012.
Age of subject: 3 years and 1 month. 

A few months ago when my daughter, Carmen, was about two and a half, we both went to a village outside Seville for a day out. In the village square, a Spanish mother with her child (about five years old) overheard me talking in English to Carmen. This is the conversation that ensued (originally in Spanish):

"Look, dear, a little English girl!" the mother said to her son. "You know English, don't you, dear? You learn it at school."
The son looked doubtful for a moment.
"Come on! Say something in English to the little girl! She is English!"
Another pause. Then the son stepped forward boldly and said very rapidly and with determination in English:
"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten".
Carmen stared in bemused disinterest and then turned away.

Learning English at school versus natural acquisition.

I mention this episode because it illustrates an interesting point about two totally different approaches to language learning. The five year old's English in the above anecdote is the result of a foreign language learning background - school. A foreign language is often referred to as L2 (as opposed to L1 the first language or mother tongue). Spanish school children tend to learn English by being taught it, which seems pretty obvious on first consideration, however, L1 is learnt (or so many experts believe) by a process of acquisition. I like to call it natural acquisition. This means that there is no or very little active teaching of language; children seem to pick up their mother tongue in a natural and unforced way without the aid of a presiding teacher.

Carmen is not just a little English girl but, in fact, offspring of a Spanish mother and an English father and living in Spain (see Carmen's background here...). Immediately after that episode in the village square, I turned to Carmen and asked her to count to ten to me:

"One, two, five, nine, twenty, ten!" she grinned.
"That's nice!" I said without correcting her.

Somehow, I felt satisfied, even proud, that Carmen couldn't count to ten. Carmen has picked up numbers, as she is picking up other bits of language information, in a way closely resembling L1 learning. She is learning English as though picking up the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and putting them down on the table without being exactly sure where they fit. The puzzle needs time to complete and it can't be rushed. But Carmen, in the majority of occasions, does understand me when I tell her what to do in English and when I talk about the immediate world around us in a simple way: the birds, the flowers, our home, Mummy, food, chocolate ice-cream... True, she does not speak a lot of English and at two and a half, her Spanish was (and still is) definitely the dominant language for verbal communication.

Second language development and its relationship to language input.

It is understandable that Spanish is Carmen's dominant language; I am her only source of English input. The rest of the world around her talks to her in Spanish. Despite this, Carmen's present English knowledge is useful. On the other hand, the five-year-old's (sorry, kid!) outburst of numbers, all in order though they were, was totally useless as it was detached from any sort of communicative objective. Teaching Spanish children to learn to count in English is a way to get output in spoken English from a pupil. For many second language teachers (or is it the parents?) there is a need to see immediate oral results right from the beginning of the language learning process. In an L1 approach, oral output is slow in coming; during the earlier stages, the ratio of the quantity of silent, ingested language compared to the quantity of uttered words must be several hundreds to one. Carmen is not a performer as school children are expected to be both in testing and oral production of L2. However, she is able to maintain communicative understanding with her father, who only addresses her in English.

Chomsky's Nativism theory and bilingual children.

Before I continue, a brief introduction on what is known as "Nativism theory". First expressed extensively by Noam Chomsky and later supported by language researchers, the theory suggests that very small children have an "innate" ability to learn language. This innate skill is essential as the child's mind is not sufficiently cognitively mature to learn language using intellectual processes of reasoning and analysis. But language is complex. Later, at around five or six years old, this innate skill disappears and any further learning of language (for example, a second language) depends on the intellectual and cognitive capacity of the brain. That is one reason (not the only reason) why a Spanish child of five with "schoolchild" English can do little more than churn out the numbers, the colours, names of animals; nouns in general and a few rote phrases like "what's your name?", "I'm fine, thank you" etc.

Innate ability in children to learn language.

I like to draw an analogy between L1 learning in humans and baby birds. In many species of birds, the chick hatches with an egg tooth attached to the tip of its beak. This is necessary for the weakling bird to help it break the shell of the egg and push its way out into the world. A short time after hatching, the chick sheds this tooth having no further use for it. Evolution has not taken into account that Spanish children will have to start learning English at the age of five and subsequently has left them badly equipped to cope.

If we can understand and apply the nativism theory to our own children's bilingual development and minimise an L2 teaching programme we could have more success perhaps. This should especially be the case when the children are still very young (0 - 5 years). I would suggest embracing that almost mystical ability to learn through natural unforced acquisition as a far deeper reaching and, in the longer term, more effective strategy. On the other hand, and depending on our domestic situation (eg. amount of time a parent can spend with the child) we may also have to fall back on L2 teaching techniques. The important thing is to be able to realise what approaches we are adopting with our children so we can avoid mistakes and control to some extent the quality of language input.

Redefining the term "second language" with regards to the bilingual child.

We could coin a term for this "add-on" of the L1 approach and call it L1b.* An additional language acquired using the child's innate language learning talents. Perhaps, in some domestic situations, where both parents are natives of say, English, yet living in a country which is L2 for the parents (eg. Spain), the child will learn both languages more or less equally (the amount of English used at home is so great) and a distinction between L1 and L1b may hardly be appreciable.* In my own case however, with Carmen, the L1b tag more closely describes her linguistic background as it is the language of minority input and usage. Many couples of separate language backgrounds will find themselves in a similar situation to my own and appreciate that the way to bilingualism for their child is not straightforward.

Optimising language input.

Choosing the right type of language input is essential in creating an optimum bilingual language learning environment. And I end this article on mentioning where I intend to continue in further articles. How can we best provide that language input to our children to pave the way to L1b acquisition? What should we say to them ? How should we say things? Does it matter? Should we encourage a child to verbally produce the L1b language? If so, to what extent? How can we take advantage of what may be a relatively limited time the parent or parents may have with their children to help them progress in their language learning skills? One day, in the not so distant future, they'll begin to escape our clutches, they'll shed their egg teeth then they'll be off to primary school and then secondary school with all that peer influence that may well leave them cynical to parental aspirations for producing a bilingual child. The time to act is now, while they're still very young, while we can still help them to develop language skills that will be ingrained in their minds for the rest of their lives.

Till next time, folks!

Mike.

Next article: The bilingual child and verbs...

*I have seen this in one couple I know. The parents are both English living in Spain. English is the only language used at home. Their children, now at school age, do prefer Spanish yet their English knowledge and skills are tremendous.

For a more detailed explanation on nativism theory, you can read the following:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_acquisition

*I have since discovered that the terms L1a and L1b have already been coined: Michael Sharwood Smith, Second language Learning 1994.

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