Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Will two languages confuse my toddler?

Liebe Sarah,
My mom is from Germany and watches my daughter, Gabriele, while I work. She speaks only German to her, but then when I come home, all she hears is English. (my husband and I don't speak German - I can a little, but not very well.)
What is your opinion about this situation? Do you think Gabriele will become confused?
Vielen Dank,

Hallo Ingrid,

Thanks for your message. Honestly, I think your daughter is in an ideal situation! She has a very clear deliniation between German and English - Oma speaks German and Mom and Dad speak English. Lots of bilingual kids grow up with much more complicated arrangements, like the one we strive for in my house - my husband and I speak German to the kids and sometimes to each other but frequently switch to English. When my mother's around (she only speaks a few words of German), we'll switch to English except with my younger son with whom I always speak German regardless. Of course, as I mentioned in my newsletter, we speak far more English at home than I'd like so there's less consistency with our language pattern. But I hear time and again that kids just sort it out. My older son (almost 6) very clearly understands the difference between the two languages and never mixes unless it's intentional. The little one mixes all the time but he's still sorting things out and I'm truly not worried. I believe if the child does speak in the second language (as opposed to just understanding it) age 3 is about when she can distinguish and choose between the two consciously.

How old is your daughter? I assume she's not speaking yet? I guess some confusion might arise from you wondering if she's said something in the other language or was it just something in English you didn't understand. My mom has this problem with my toddler right now - "Was he speaking German or was I supposed to understand him just now?"

I think your daughter is very lucky to have your mom to teach her German from the start. I'd love to hear how it's going. I hope you don't have any well-meaning busybodies telling you your daughter is going to be disadvantaged by learning German in this manner. :) See http://www.nethelp.no/cindy/myth.html for some myths about bilingualism.

Viele Gruesse,

1 comment:

Ulrike said...

I absolutely agree with Sarah. Small children have the ability to pick up two languages (or more) quite naturally. Of course, at first they are going to mix them up – and it might take a few years before they really know which words to use in which situation. The concept of different people speaking different languages is quite difficult to grasp - a colleague of mine learned German from her grandparents, and she told me that for a long time she didn’t get that her friends could not understand German while she could understand it just fine. But gradually they will learn – and being bilingual is such a great gift that I think the effort is truly worth it.

We are a bilingual household and speak both languages at home (although lately we are focusing more on German at home, since our son started daycare full-time). Our son is turning two years this month and so far is doing just fine. He does mix up his languages, but I’m not concerned about it. He quickly learns when he uses German words with English speakers (and vise versa) that they don’t understand him, and he has already started to get the concept that there are different ways of expressing the same thing (he actually translates sometimes). We also try to correct him, if he mixes up languages in the same sentence by repeating what he said in the correct language.

The important thing is to help your child gradually to tell the languages apart and how and when to use which words. I don’t think that you have to strictly separate the two languages - like making sure each language is only spoken to certain people or in certain environments (although I’m sure that helps). I think what you want to avoid is to completely mix up the languages, like use two languages in the same sentence or constantly switching back and forth. It’s also good to set a model for responding in the language that you are spoken to.

Good Luck!