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"He should know all his languages perfectly". Chitania creators comment on myths imposed on bilingual children


The vain dreams of "My child will grow up to be a bilingual and conquer the world!" are replaced by anxiety and worry: "What if it doesn't work, he gets confused with the languages and just stops talking?”. The expats worry, study the work of child psychologists and linguists, but in the end the situation looks more and more confusing. At the same time, adults themselves are experiencing the same language stress - because they, too, have to learn a new language, and learning as an adult is even more difficult.

The good news is that your child will start speaking another language much faster than you will. The bad news is that it won't happen in a couple of days.

"Sometimes a couple of months go by and parents get anxious, demanding immediate results from their child. You have to realise that every child has a different pace of learning. Nevertheless, when immersed in a language environment - which is what happens to a child in a new school - it is almost impossible not to learn the language. Some children just quickly start speaking in simple sentences, while others first build up a passive vocabulary and only then move on to active speech."

Natalia Sosnina, Chitania.

It takes half a year to one year for primary school age children (4-5 years in Europe) to learn a new language. An adult hardly has time to reach the passive voice during this time.

Will your child be bilingual? If you speak to him or her in the mother tongue at home - absolutely. But the extent to which they will become bilingual depends on a number of factors.

There are several different types of bilingualism.

Depending on the age:

  • Early simultaneous bilingualism - a child learns both languages before the age of 3-4 years;
  • Early sequential bilingualism - a child first learns the mother tongue and then learns the second language before reaching puberty;
  • Late sequential bilingualism - the adult learns the second language in a deliberate manner.

Depending on the level of proficiency:

  • Coordinated/balanced bilingualism - if both languages are at a high level. Bilinguals of this type perceive each language as a separate system, in which concepts and grammatical structures do not overlap with the other.
  • Unbalanced (subordinate/unbalanced bilingualism) - when one is better developed than the other. Usually, this bilingualism develops in adults who have moved to another country and now their mother tongue appears in speech as tracing or borrowing.
  • Compound bilingualism - when language systems merge with each other and the person is not always aware of which language's grammar and vocabulary they are using at that moment. Most common in early bilinguals.

By activity of language use:

  • Unactivated (dormant), characteristic in particular of immigrants who have stopped actively using their first language but continue to understand it;
  • Passive (dualingualism) - a situation in which the individual is able to understand the language in written and/or spoken form, but cannot write or speak it;
  • Active (productive), involving the individual's ability not only to understand spoken and written language, but also to speak and write it.

Of course, when parents hear "bilinguals" they imagine a child perfectly bilingual (or even more!). However, this is far from being the case. It is much more common to meet bilinguals who are proficient at different levels: they are better at speaking, reading or listening in one.

As a rule, one language becomes dominant and the language structures are adopted from it for use in other languages.

It is not uncommon for a child to have strange stylistic constructions in his or her speech, which are actually traces of the main language.

Apart from the myth "A true bilingual knows all his/her languages perfectly", there are others.

"A true bilingual instantly translates all words from one language to another" In fact, a child's vocabulary may simply not allow such a translation. This is not to mention the peculiarities of languages, when even professional translators are unable to translate a construction without losing its original meaning. As they used to say in the famous film, "untranslatable wordplay follows".

"A true bilingual does not mix languages" Not only does he mix them, but he learns them that way. Sometimes a little bilingual can produce a veritable mess of languages - so new words and expressions are built into their speech.

"If someone speaks one of the languages with an accent, they are not a real bilingual" Of course, if a child has perfect hearing and memory, you can expect them to pronounce all languages cleanly. But usually, languages influence each other and one or the other accent is heard almost everywhere. Another thing is that in some cases, it may be mistaken for a local or near-local accent - or a completely different one. For example, Russian-speaking expats in northern Europe are often recognised by their "Italian" accent - although it is certainly not Italian at all.

How can you help a young bilingual to not get confused with languages?
  1. Try to correct your child less, and more gently. There will still be grammatical and stylistic inaccuracies in their language. Reading books and watching films in the language to be corrected will help. But constant corrections can be annoying and discourage your child from speaking the language.
  2. Mixing up the languages is not a signal to help or to increase the hours of communication in a particular language. It is a normal stage of language acquisition, especially in children. Be sensitive to it, but speak to your child in the right way, don't try to fit in with their style.
  3. Don't stress to the child that he/she doesn't know the language. Especially don't say "You don't understand children yet, you will play with them when you learn to communicate in their language". Interaction between children is much more based on emotions and empathy than with adults. A child doesn't need to understand his playmates in this sense - there are no philosophical topics that need complex arguments at the playground. If misunderstandings do arise, don't rush to solve the contradictions for your child - they may be more likely to find a good solution themselves.
  4. Enroll your child in local clubs, but make sure they choose what they want to do. This will both increase their interest in a new language and find new friends who share their hobbies.
  5. If you feel that you are too busy to practise your mother tongue with your children sufficiently, try to find a Russian-speaking weekend school - this way the Russian language will not become "passive".

Another way to keep the language alive is to get your child interested in reading. Chitania, an app for teaching your child to read in Russian, will help you do this. After lessons with Chitania, the world of Russian children's literature will open its doors and, without pressure or compulsion, teach your little bilingual child how to read literate Russian.

Photos taken from the internet


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