New Zealand has more ethnicities than the world has countries. We hail from a variety of different backgrounds and this enriches the diversity of our community enormously. Haere mai! We speak quite a few languages too. In 2013, when the last census was taken, the six most common languages were English (hello), te reo Māori (kia ora), Samoan (talofa), Hindi (namaste), French (bonjour), and Yue (including Cantonese, nǐ hǎo). There were around 740,000 people in 2013 fluent in more than one language, following a steady trend upwards from previous years, so it will be interesting to see what the 2018 census reveals.*
This post in our language series looks at learning two languages at once – bilingual language acquisition. How do families gift more than one language to their children? How does a child actually learn two languages? What are the benefits of speaking more than one language? Read on...
Why learn more than one language?
True bilingualism is where a child speaks each language as if it were their ‘mother tongue’. They are completely fluent in both languages and able to switch between them easily. A child becomes truly bilingual at around seven years old if both languages have been used frequently and consistently from the start. This takes focussed effort on behalf of the adults in the whanau – but it is such a gift. Generally most people actually speak one language slightly better than the other. (An expert wouldn’t call them ‘bilingual’ but they still get a big round of applause and a cake from the rest of us).
When a child learns two languages, they learn two cultures. They are members of two communities and understand the way each group thinks, feels and ‘sits’ within the world. Language is such a valuable entry point to a culture because if offers this different perspective. Experts call this ‘language socialisation’ and it is a powerful tool towards understanding other people’s points-of-view. Bilingual kids are agents of change. Their brains work differently, giving them greater empathy, better social skills, better listening skills and they even learn faster.
Although at first some language for bilingual kids develops faster and some slower (including speech) and yes they can seem a bit confused with their words as toddlers, overall the child is not at a developmental or educational disadvantage by learning more than one language at the same time. If you or another family member are fluent in more than one language, pass that second language on to your child if you are able to. If there is no one around you with a second language, expose your child to other languages as much as you can because they will still reap some of the benefits.
How do children learn two languages at once?
How do our little whizz-kids actually learn two languages then? They buckle down and learn double the amount of words in a similar amount of time, that's how. The child actually creates two language systems in the brain. They establish two lists of words right from the start, two sets of phrasing rules and language patterns, and two sets of speech sounds. This is no mean feat, but they do it. They learn both languages at a similar rate the child learning only one does.
They start with the sounds that are similar in both languages and fly into it from here.
Learning two languages is such a complex task. So children make it a little bit easier on themselves by learning a word, phrase or concept in the language where it is more simple first. Think of this as a kind of zig zag pattern in the brain, where the child dips in and out of each language, searching for the simplest patterns. This is why you’ll notice the child doesn’t learn both languages at exactly the same rate.
In the early days they make a lot of mistakes, mixing up sounds and words from both languages, and the learning as a whole is initially a slow process, because its double what other children are learning. You will hear this mixing from the start with the baby babbling – baby will use both sets of sounds, and later, toddlers will insert both languages in their sentences if it’s the easiest way for them to make themselves understood (making it simple for themselves again!)
Once they plough through this stage though, they are off and away, only occasionally borrowing a word from the other language to pop into their sentences.
After a few years, they will have worked out the rules and patterns of both languages and will be structuring them correctly. They probably still make mistakes in their actual words (just like kids learning one language do – check out our language overview here) but they’ve got the fundamentals of each language organised in their brain. They might show a preference for one of the languages now. Try not to let them lose the other one, keep the hard work going until they’re seven because they can forget!
How to teach more than one language
‘Simultaneous acquisition’ is when a child hears and learns both languages before they are three years old. So speak that second language to the child from birth if you can because it is helpful for the child to associate a language with a person (or group of people). One strategy is to choose one person in the family to speak one language and another for the other. It takes effort from the parent or grandparent to only speak in their chosen language, especially if it’s one no one else is speaking it around them - and they need support and lots of cups of tea. But they can rest assured this consistency really helps the child learn (and they will have a very grateful adult on their hands in about twenty years).
It is important that bilingual language learning takes place in a supportive atmosphere within a family that views bilingualism positively, and where there are plenty of opportunities for the child to speak both languages.
It is a true gift to speak more than one language. Although it’s easier overall to learn when we’re little, any one of us can start learning another language at any stage of our lives. It even delays the onset of Alzeimer's later on. Go for it!
Kia ora to the focussed parents and caregivers crafting a bilingual legacy for their children every day.
Mā te wā (until next time),
Information for the Eardrops blog language series was guided and overseen by Dr Jayne Newbury, Researcher in Child Language (University of Canterbury), with the comprehensive information in Language Development: An Introduction by Robert E. Owens, Jr. (2015). This post was written by Liz Donnelly, creator of Eardrops, audio stories that help develop listening skills and improve everyday language in young children.
* New Zealand language stats from here