Bilingual is Better


This week’s Ask an Expert question was sent in by Susan, and is raising her sons trilingual.

“My husband and I are raising our sons to be trilingual–I speak to them in Spanish and he speaks to them in German. He will learn English since it is the majority language, and he understands it since my husband and I speak to each other in English. My oldest son, 22 months, has done very well with both languages, and easily moves between Spanish and German. The problem is, when he speaks, he almost always uses the second person singular form, the ‘tu’ form. Rather than saying ‘I want milk’ (‘quiero leche’), he says ‘you want milk’ (‘quieres leche’). My husband says that he makes the exact same error in German. I feel that with more exposure to the language, my son will correct this error on his own. My husband feels that we should tell him the correct way to say the sentence. I have tried my husband’s method, but my son continues to make the same error. Should we address his errors, and if so how?”

Dear Susan,

I think you and your husband are both right.  You’re right that your son will probably get his pronouns straight in a month or two by himself.  If he doesn’t, though, you may want to help him along, as your husband suggests.  But not by correcting him.

If we think about it, what the child has to learn is really pretty complicated.  When we call someone by name, the name doesn’t change. You are Susan whether you’re the speaker or the listener.  But the terms change when it’s “you” and “I.”  You are “I” when you’re the speaker, but you are “you” when your son is the speaker. You call your boy “you”—so he figures he’s “you.” (The other person may be “I.”) Many children go through this stage you describe, although most do it so briefly we don’t notice it.  They overhear others switching “you” and “I,” and get the idea that they need to do it, too. Others, like my grandson (!), stay in that stage almost a year.  My grandson E would say things like “Mommy, change your diaper!” (meaning his diaper, since his mother doesn’t wear them : ).  When he wanted someone not to play with his fire engine, he said “I can’t touch it.  I can’t touch it” in a distressed tone of voice.  The other kids couldn’t figure out that he meant “you” meaning “them,” so it was hard for them to cooperate with him.

I confess I was worried because for some children, this failure to change the point of view in their sentences may be associated with autism. When my grandson was 3, he was speaking a lot and had a tremendous memory, but was still not reversing his pronouns.  So, I’d say, “Oh look, E says, Please Grandma, will you push me in the swing. Can you say that?”  Or, “E says, Grandma, I want you to hug me.  Now you say it.”  (And of course, then I got to hug him.)  For a while, he just repeated my sentences like a parrot, but after a few months, he would hesitate like he noticed something was different, but didn’t know what. I didn’t say, “No, you’re wrong.  Do it like this.”  I just gave him the correct model and tried to make sure he was attending to it.

Eventually, E changed.  We don’t know when. We just noticed that he was reversing the “you” and “I” like everyone else.  Of course, we have no way of knowing whether my little tricks worked or whether he just finally grew out of it. In any event, since we made it like a game, no harm was done.

After a few months, if your son hasn’t changed or if you are worried, you should consult a speech-language therapist.  This isn’t an issue of bilingualism, but it would be good to find an SLT who is familiar with bi- or trilinguals, so he or she doesn’t automatically say the problem comes from hearing too many languages—as often happens.

It is so interesting that your son does this in two languages, and it makes perfect sense.  If I had spoken with you before I wrote my book, I would have asked you if I could put your example in it.  Let me know how it goes.

Best wishes,

Barbara Zurer Pearson

Barbara Zurer Pearson, Ph. D. - A bilingualism expert with over twenty years of research experience in the fields of bilingualism, linguistics, and communication disorders, Pearson is the author of the informative and extremely useful book Raising a Bilingual Child. She is currently a Research Associate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her pioneering work on bilingual learning by infants and children and on language assessment has been published in scholarly journals and in the book Language and Literacy in Bilingual Children. As Project Manager, she contributed to the creation of the innovative DELV tests, culture-fair assessments of language development published by The Psychological Corporation. You can see her answers by going here.

As always, feel free to leave your thoughts or advice about this in the comments below.

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