A few weeks ago I shared two excellent books on early child bilingualism in the post Recommended Resources: Books on Bilingual Acquisition by Prominent Researcher Annick De Houwer. Along with my impressions of these books, the post included an insightful interview with Dr. De Houwer and a book giveaway, which generated a number of questions from this audience.
Dr. De Houwer, a professor of Language Acquisition and Multilingualism at the University of Erfurt in Germany, generously offered to respond to some of these questions (and expressed regret at not being able to respond to everyone). On behalf of us all at Bilingual Monkeys and The Bilingual Zoo, let me thank Dr. De Houwer for her helpful thoughts today, and more broadly, for the important work she has long pursued to shed brighter light on child bilingualism. The world’s bilingual families are very grateful!
Question from Elodie in Germany: Can bilingualism not happen, even if the parents do everything that can be done? Can children resist that much that it will never work?
Question from Lainy in the U.S.: I’d like to know some strategies to get my children to produce the second language. They understand the spoken language very well, but they are hesitant to speak it.
Question from Stephanie in Japan: What I really want to know is how best to divert the child back into speaking the target language when s/he responds in the “wrong” language. Currently we ask our daughter “How do you say that in English?” Or we say “Please speak to Mama in English”. But I’ve heard from several friends in child development that children can’t actively distinguish between languages until age 4, so I am a bit confused as to whether that’s true (in which case I should just tell her the word in English?) or if that’s not true and I should continue as we have been doing.
Response from Dr. De Houwer: Indeed, children can strongly resist speaking a particular language, Elodie. In the preschool years there certainly are strategies that you can use to counter this. Using the names of languages, Stephanie, will not be particularly helpful, though. If very young children are not using the language you want them to speak, you can do various things to try to get them to change. You can ask: Oh, did you mean so-and-so, where ‘so-and-so’ is the word or phrase in the language you want them to speak. If they say yes, then ask them to repeat what they meant, so you can properly understand them. Or you could say: I really don’t understand that word very well, can you say it differently? (That’s if you think children know the word in the ‘right’ language.) You can try this for a few weeks and often this will be enough to switch very young children over to the ‘right’ language but sometimes that doesn’t happen. Then you could bring a cute hand puppet into the house and tell your child that this puppet only understands Polish, or Spanish, or whatever language you want them to speak. And then…it’s time for your talents as a puppeteer to develop! Play games with your child and the puppet, so that your child gets into the habit of using the right language.
Now with older children I’m afraid it’s nearly impossible to change ingrained habits of using language X with a parent who speaks language Y to them, but it is worth talking to them about it and explaining that you understand that they don’t feel good talking a language they have little fluency in, but that it’s really important to you that they speak your language. Educate your school aged children about your language, and show them (online perhaps?) children who speak it. Try to increase their motivation to speak it, and put them in circumstances where in order to say anything they must use it, because the person they’re talking to doesn’t know another language they know.