My Child is Learning a Second Language and is Mixing Them Up, Why?

My two-year old, has begun learning English as a second language and she’s mixing English with her mother tongue. Sometimes she uses two languages in one sentence. Is this normal? Should I correct her? 

Helen answers: Do not worry, mixing is a very normal part of the bilingual child’s language development. In fact, using words from one language when speaking the other language, or code switching, is a normal, natural product of bilingual language learning.

First we need to understand how children learn language and next, how they integrate an additional language, or languages into their communication.

The First Three Years are the Key

In the first year, babies will play with sounds, babble and start to form words. Generally, by the age of 18 months, they will speak single words and name things such as “mama”, “dada”, “bye”, “hi”. By the age of 2, toddlers’ vocabulary has grown and they will start to put two or three words together into short sentences such as “all gone” or “more please” or “Mummy out”. By the age of 3, the average child has the basics of her mother-tongue language and approximately 90% of her grammar in place.

These, are very general guidelines; each child learns to speak at his or her own pace. Some children wait to speak until they are even older and begin with full complete sentences.  Whether your child is learning one language or more, remember that the key to language learning is to talk to your child. The rate of children’s vocabulary development is influenced by the amount of talk they are exposed to. The more speech that is addressed to a toddler, the more rapidly he will learn new words!

Oh too often I hear parents say: “But she can’t speak yet! What’s the point of speaking to her so much?” It always amazes me when I hear that — and I hear it from even teachers and highly educated people sometimes. Clearly the basic principle in child language acquisition remains: INPUT = OUTPUT. That means the more language the infant is exposed to and the richer the language, and the amount of languages, the more the infant will learn. Because infants are very, very clever. And they are programmed to hear language, analyse it based on frequency and consistency of exposure and reproduce it once it is encoded. So, just speak to your child. A lot. With as rich an input as possible: rhymes, books, songs, talking. Just speak.

The Same Process Applies for Bilingual Language Learners

So why might a child start learning English as a second language at such a young age?   In some families, each parent may have a different native language so the child is introduced to a second language at birth. Sometimes a nanny or caregiver speaks another language or the family may choose to send their child to an early English classes or an English speaking kindergarten. Whatever the reason, take advantage of this opportunity to introduce your child to a second, or third language. Until the age of 7, children are able to learn another language with the same ease they learn their mother tongue. In fact, Research has shown that when a child learns a second or third language, it becomes part of his neural pathways and language processing areas are actually created in the brain.”

Simultaneous Language Acquisition

When a child is introduced to another language at a very early age (birth to 3 years) this is called simultaneous language acquisition. This means that the child is learning the second language at the same time he is learning his own mother tongue. While you might think that the language learning process for bilinguals would be different, these children go through the same developmental stages as children learning one language. In fact, these children have an added advantage that their brains are wired for learning — earlier is better.

Until recently, the approach recommended to parents raising bilingual children was called the “one person, one language”, or OPOL approach which stated that the only correct way to raise a bilingual child in a multilingual family is for each parent to speak only one language to the child; the two must never be mixed. (Ronjat, 1913). Theorists originally reasoned that associating each language with a different person was the only way to prevent bilingual children from being confused More recent research challenges this approach and suggests that children are skilled at distinguishing different languages, even when they are spoken by the same person, and children can learn to understand and speak both of them without confusion. Dr Patricia Kuhl, noted researcher from the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences University of Washington has found that these skills start at infancy. She states, “Infants are born “citizens of the world” and can acquire any language easily and that babies under 8 months of age from different cultures can detect sounds in any language from around the world, “

Language Mixing

Often, while a child is learning his mother tongue, and a second language is introduced, he mixes words of the languages.  Be reassured that this language play is perfectly fine and developmentally appropriate. Your child is not confused; he is playing and exploring the sounds and use of language. Children will familiarize themselves by having fun with the language and code-switching is actually considered essential to integrating languages. .

As a linguistic scientist with 30 years’ experience creating and developing English as a second language (ESL) pedagogic materials, I see that when language needs to fall into place for the child, it does. Language is a matter of necessity. If the child needs something he will ask for it and learn quickly what language he must use to get what he needs.

So, when parents hear language play and hear the child mixing, their languages they should not discourage the child but should instead gently and naturally model the correct language in the very same the way they would do this with the child’s native language. For example, if the child says, “mommy goed” parents can simply respond, “Yes, mommy went.” and will have gently corrected the child. The child will take in this information and learn to use the correct word.  One of the biggest mistakes parents can make is to be critical and over-correct the child. Instead, let them hear you use language, encourage and support them and watch them flourish as they become bilingual — or even multiligual.