Yesterday evening, thanks to the University Centre for Sociolinguistics and Communication and the Faculty of Philology of the University of Barcelona, the Raising Bilingual Children event was held. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to invite Dr Annick De Houwer, a specialist in the field of young bilingual development, to speak to parents of bilingual children and answer their questions about how best to raise them with more than one language at home and in society. For those of you who were unable to attend, I’ve written up a short summary of De Houwer’s insightful presentation below.
De Houwer mentioned three key ingredients for raising bilingual children and these are: positive attitudes to multilingualism and the languages involved; sustained, regular language input in the desired languages; and a communicative need for the child to speak them.
The first ingredient for all parents hoping to raise children to speak two or more languages is positive attitudes towards multilingualism and towards the languages involved. Without this, other activities to develop the languages are at risk of being undermined. However, the very fact that so many parents attended the event, or indeed that you’re reading this blog, probably means that this isn’t a problem for too many of you!
Next De Houwer addressed the point of input, that is what languages parents and other guardians that spend a significant amount of time with their children use in interaction with them, and how much of each of those languages is used. Based on the results of a large-scale survey she carried out in Flanders (De Houwer, 2007), Dr De Houwer indicated that parental language input patterns make a big difference on children’s linguistic outcomes. In two parent families, parents who both speak the same non-societal language at home have a higher success rate of passing it on than those who speak the non-societal language alongside the societal language (with significant differences between the various possible combinations of those two languages). What is more, De Houwer encouraged parents to make sure that they try to talk to their children as much as possible in the desired language as the more input, the more vocabulary (De Houwer et al, 2014).
Finally, De Houwer moved on to the concept of communicative need. By this she refers to the need to speak a particular language in order to talk to a certain person or engage in a particular activity. Creating a real communicative need for young children to use a particular language makes it meaningful and relevant and will improve chances of children moving beyond comprehension of two languages to active production (ie. speech).
De Houwer, A. (2007) Parental language input patterns and children’s bilingual use. Applied Psycholinguistics 28, 3: 411-424
De Houwer, A.; Bornstein, M. & Putnick, D. (2014). A bilingual-monolingual comparison of children’s vocabulary size: Evidence from comprehension and production. Applied Psycholinguistics 35, 6: 1189-1211