Bilingual is Better
Photo by Vincent ®

Photo by Vincent ®

As a German mother living in Scotland with a Scottish husband I’m attempting to bring our 2 1/2 year old daughter up bilingually. We are encountering a situation where our daughter understands German, the minority language, perfectly, but most of her utterances are in English. She needs a lot of positive encouragement to even say single words in German. This is worrying, and from reading other parents’ experiences, I know that our daughter isn’t unusual, and neither are our worries as parents committed to the benefits of raising our children bilingually.

A good few years ago, when at university, obsessed with all things Irish and indulgent in anything to do with linguistics, I had the opportunity to learn about how languages change when in contact with another language. For instance, English being an international language and taught in many countries has left marks on other languages, through new words, new phrases. There are also situations where one community speaks two languages (or more, but I’ll look at a two language situations) – such a set up is considered to be close contact between two languages. The influence exerted on either language can naturally be expected to be greater than in a context where one language is clearly the mother tongue and the other language provides new terms for new concepts, or new terms for existing concepts because the contact language has a certain status (e.g. German and English – where words such as computer, report, communities, even station have made their way into everyday German usage).

I specifically studied the contact situation between English and Irish Gaelic in the Republic of Ireland. Irish Gaelic is spoken by a dwindling number of people, all of whom speak English fluently. English has been the language of public life in Ireland for over 150 years, with a much longer history in some parts of the country. Irish Gaelic, in itself, has had a clear influence on the English spoken in Ireland, in terms of vocabulary, grammar and also pronunciation. However, I was keen to find out how Irish Gaelic is changed today by the fact that English is the majority language of any community where Irish Gaelic is spoken.

Irish in Ireland, have a clear distinction of minority vs majority, weak vs strong language. The language of public life is English. The language of the home (and only half of it at best) is Irish/German respectively. The are learned simultaneously.

Some of the findings of my research may explain features of bilingual language acquisition:

  • Irish, in this situation of close contact with a language of prestige and social status (English) displayed a tendency to simplify grammatical structures. If there were different categories for a grammatical form (e.g. the gerund), the close contact of a language with only one category for this form (English) would lead to the categories in the weaker language (Irish) to merge into one. Grammar was thus simplified.
  • Irish speakers would take an English word and add an Irish grammatical ending/prefix to it. So the semantic root would be English, while the grammatical form would be Irish.
  • Word order, strangely, would remain very Irish, although this may be because Irish had influenced English word order so they weren’t so far of

In my child I can observe the following:

  • Using English verbs with German verb endings: runnen (to run, running), sleepen (to sleep, sleeping) which is particularly strong because the there is an English form similar to the German ending -en in -ing.
  • Word order steeped in German: verbs appear randomly at the end, unknown of in English, very frequent in German.
  • Simplification of grammatical structure if only one category in English: the plural -s gets added to all German words. Even plural words: Kinders, Voegels, Elefantens

All of which is exactly what I found when describing interferences of English on Irish in a close contact (i.e. bilingual) language situation.

This, to me, indicates that such features are nothing to be worried about because they are natural and will happen in any bilingual speaker. To a certain extend, we cannot expect languages to be separated entirely and there will be influence in both directions, simply because languages are alive and not static systems, they are for communicating and as long as communication still happens, there is flexibility in usage. There is no reason that a child displaying the features above won’t go on to become a balanced bilingual speaker if she is sufficiently encouraged in her bilingual language development. However, we also need to be aware of the potentially more significant influence of the stronger majority-status language (English) and encourage the weaker language as best as we can.

What does this mean parents trying to encourage bilingual or multilingual language acquisition?

  • Don’t be discouraged by interference, especially if it seems to indicate the weaker language is suffering. This seems to be a stage of language acquisition which is to be expected and which will develop into a fuller and more adequate distinction between languages in its own good time. All language acquisition will produce grammar which is not the correct target grammar, but this is still language acquisition and demonstrates that the child is trying to make sense of the language by applying, testing, and sometimes then dismissing rules.
  • Encourage the weaker language by all means
  • Try and only respond to utterances which are at least partly in the weaker language
  • Use the weaker language in a variety of contexts and with fun and interactivity
  • Connect it with positive emotions and experiences

If this is ensured, initial interference from the stronger language will eventually subside and the child will be able to use both languages effectively.

Written by Steffi, a voluntary sector expat, working mummy blogger, campaigner, activist and nutty knitter from Glasgow rambling about parenting, raising bilingual children, child poverty, crafting and more in her blog: Mummy do that.

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