In this case, bilingualism or
multilingualism can be seen as an extraordinary situation – a source of
admiration and worry at the same time. But there are communities where
bilingualism or multilingualism are the norm – for example in regions of
Africa. A Cameroonian, for example, could speak Limbum and Sari, both
indigenous languages, plus Ewondo, a lingua franca, plus English or French, the official
languages, plus Camfranglais, a further lingua franca used between anglophone and
On a smaller scale, we all know families where
bilingualism or multilingualism are the norm, because the parents speak
different languages or because the family uses a language different from that
of the community around them.
How difficult is it for a child to grow up in
such an environment? And what are bilingual children capable of? Well, they are capable of quite a lot, even at a very youngage. They can understand and
produce expressions in more than one language, they know who to address in
which language, they are able to switch very fast from one language to the
Noses for grammar
Clearly we are talking here of a range of
different skills: social, linguistic and cognitive. Social skills are the most
known: bilingual children are able to interact with speakers of (at least) two
languages and thus have direct access to two different cultures.
But they also have linguistic skills, some very
obvious, such as understanding and using words and expressions in different
languages. A less obvious aspect is that bilingual children have a raised
awareness for how language “works”. For example, bilinguals are better than
monolinguals of the same age at pinpointing that the sentence “apples growed on
trees” is bad, and “apples grow on noses” is fine, but doesn’t make sense.
Less known are the cognitive skills developed by
bilinguals, an issue of great interest for research at the moment, as seen, for
example, in work by Ellen Bialystok and colleagues. Probably due to the practice of switching languages, bilinguals are very
good at taking different perspectives, dealing with conflicting cues and
ignoring irrelevant information. This skill can be applied to domains other
than language, making it an added value of bilingualism.
Is it worth it?
What if one of the languages is not a “useful”
one because, for example, it does not have many speakers (for example,
Cornish)? Is it worth exposing the child to it? The linguistic, social and
cognitive advantages mentioned above hold, independently of the specific
languages. Any combination of languages has the same effect.
A common worry is that trying to speak two (or
more) languages could be too strenuous for the child. But there is no need for
concern: learning to speak is more similar to learning to walk than it is to
learning a school subject. Learning to speak is genetically programmed. The brain is certainly able to cope with more than one language, as
research and experience shows.
There could be a practical problem, though, in
providing enough exposure to the languages. The stress is then on the parents
to ensure the opportunity to interact with speakers of the languages in
question. Bilingualism is not genetic: having parents who speak different
language does not guarantee a bilingual child.
Code-switching is cool
Another frequent worry is that of the child learning
two half languages, short of the “proper” version of either of them. One may,
for example, hear bilinguals – children and adults – using words or expressions
from two or more of the languages in their linguistic repertoire in a single
sentence or text, a phenomenon known as code-switching.
Often people assume that the main reason for
doing this is a lack of sufficient proficiency in one of the languages, such
that the speaker cannot continue in the language they started in. They also
often assume that the choice of the words from one language or the other is
random. Far from it. Code-switching is common among bilinguals and, contrary to
popular belief, it follows grammatical rules.
Research has shown regular patterns in code-switching, influenced by the languages concerned, by community norms and by which
language(s) people learn first or use more frequently. Very often,
code-switchers are very highly proficient in the languages concerned.
Code-switching also follows social rules: bilingual children only use it if
they know the interlocutor knows the “other” language.
Additionally, if asked for clarification, they
know if they have spoken too quietly or used the wrong language, and only
switch in the latter case. Both bilingual children and adults have a range of
reasons, including sociolinguistic reasons to code-switch. Code-switching can
typically developing children will learn one language. To learn more than one
they need the opportunity and the motivation. Growing up with more than one
language is an asset well worth the investment.