This week’s Ask an Expert question was sent by Leslie.
“Does it hurt the child’s development to emphasize more than one language? I am bilingual in both Chinese and English and my husband only speaks English. My baby goes to a daycare that speaks Chinese to him. However, since we live in CA, I wanted to expose the baby to Spanish as well, which I am proficient in but no expert. We read Spanish story books as well as Chinese ones and I speak Chinese to him when I am alone with him (since my husband only understands and speaks a little Chinese, I was worried it wasn’t fair to him to speak it all the time around the house when he’s there). We also occasionally read other language picture books for fun – like French even though I can’t be sure of the pronunciation. Is being too exposed to multiple languages weakening his grasp of Chinese? I’m not worried about English since he’ll get that at school and around our friends since everyone but my family and at daycare speaks English.”
It’s fantastic that you are exposing your child to such a variety of languages.
In the first year of life children are learning to differentiate the sounds of language. The earlier a child is exposed to a language, the easier it is for him to differentiate and produce the sounds of that language. This is the same reason that adult second language learners have difficulty sounding like native speakers of their second language, even if their vocabulary and syntax are perfect.
And speaking of vocabulary and syntax, you might see that your child picks up some words in Chinese, some in English, and maybe others in Spanish but does not know the word for one thing in both or all of his languages. It is common that 70% of the words a bilingual toddler uses are unique to one language or the other while only 30% are words used in both languages.
It is also common to see the child use the syntax, or structure, of one language in the other. For example, Spanish word order requires a noun followed by an adjective (el zapato azul/the shoe blue), whereas English word order requires the adjective first (the blue shoe). It is very normal for children to use rules from language when producing another when they are in the learning process. This does not mean they have a delay or that they are confused—just that they are learning.
Keep up the multi-language immersion!
Ellen Kester, Ph.D. CCC-SLP
Ellen Stubbe Kester, Ph.D, CCS-LLP – A bilingual (English/Spanish) speech language professional who earned her Ph.D. in Communication Sciences and Disorders from The University of Texas at Austin. She earned her Master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology and her Bachelor’s degree in Spanish at The University of Texas at Austin. She has provided bilingual Spanish/English speech-language services in schools, hospitals, and early intervention settings. Her research focus is on the acquisition of semantic language skills in bilingual children, with emphasis on assessment practices for the bilingual population. She is the President of Bilinguistics, which is “dedicated to enhancing speech and language services for Spanish-English bilingual children, enabling those children to achieve their highest communicative and academic potential.” You can read her answers here.
As always, feel free to leave your thoughts or advice about this in the comments below. You can also leave your own question for the Experts here.
We invite you to visit our new sister site, SpanglishBabyFinds, where we review the coolest products made with Latino and/or bilingual kids in mind. There’s a giveaway every week!