Bilingual is Better
Photo by Absolut1

Photo by Absolut1

Monday is our favorite day of the week because, through our panel of amazing experts, we get to answer a reader’s question, as part of our weekly series: Ask an Expert . If you’ve missed previous entries, no worries, you can catch up on all their useful advice by clicking here.

Barbara Zurer Pearson, Ph.D., author of the resourceful book Raising a Bilingual Child, is back to answer this week’s question.

My son mixes his three languages.

The question comes from Inés Hernandez, a mother and anthropologist living in Miami, FL.

“My son will be three in May and is very verbal. He is learning three languages and mixes them quite a lot. We are using the OPOL method (Spanish and Portuguese at home and English at school) and we discourage the mixing by trying to encourage him to speak in just one language to each parent. At what age is it reasonable to expect a child to speak fluently without mixing?”

Dear Ines,

I think you could expect a three-year-old not to mix languages–if it was important to him not to mix.  I know children who are 2 1/2-years-old who can keep their languages separate. In fact, these children insist that each person has only one language and they protest when someone speaks to them in the “wrong” language. I also know children who are 2 ½ and three or older who don’t keep their languages separate.

It depends mostly on what they hear other people doing.

You should ask yourself what models your son has for whether to speak in “multilingual mode”—using more than one language in the same conversation—or “monolingual mode,” where you don’t mix. What language(s) do you and  your husband speak together?  Or with your friends and other relatives?  You each probably speak in only one language to the boy, but it’s possible that you (or others) are modeling a multilingual mode for him.  Even if you don’t speak with him in more than one language, he is a smart boy.  He knows you both understand the other languages and there are no bad consequences from mixing the languages.

But if it’s a concern for you, let’s think of how you could nudge him away from mixing, toward multiple-monolingualism (that is, monolingual mode with different people).  You say your gentle encouragement hasn’t been working, so what else  could you try?

Are there any monolingual people in your son’s life?  Monolingual children (who speak only Spanish or only Portuguese) would be especially effective.  Does he mix languages with those people?  If he tries to mix with them, he should quickly find that it doesn’t work.  Are there many monolingual settings in his life, where only one language is used?  Does he mix languages (a lot) in those, too?  Also, for a while, you and your husband might look for opportunities for more one-on-one time with him, so a whole conversation happens in only one language.

It doesn’t hurt to talk to him about it and tell him what you want him to do, but you should reinforce what you say with situations that help him do what you want.

You might also like to read the winter 2009 issue of Multilingual Living Magazine—which is devoted to raising trilingual children.

Keep up the good work,
Barbara

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