Language acquisition

I spent Christmas with my family at my brother’s house in Devon in the south west of England. His daughter is now 20 months old and it’s fascinating to see how she’s acquiring language.

The last time I saw her was at Easter this year when she was nearly a year old. At that time she was able to say a few words, but now she has a lot more words and little phrases, and understands more as well. Most of her words are in English, but she also uses some Russian ones (her mother is Russian) such as сок (juice), and even some BSL signs, such as thank you, picked up from baby signing classes.

As well as English and Russian, she’s picking up some French from the French nanny who looks after her a few days a week while her mother is working. So she is on the way to becoming a polyglot. Whether she’ll be as enthusiastic about languages as I am remains to be seen, but it will be very interesting to see how her language develops.

Do you have or know children who are being raised bilingually or multilingually? Do you have any tips and stories you’d like to share? Guest posts on this topic are very welcome.

5 thoughts on “Language acquisition

  1. I am a native speaker of Polish, my husband is a native speaker of English (American version). Our three sons (ages 24, 20, 18) are fluent in English (we live in US) and semi-fluent in Polish. They have been exposed to the two languages since birth. The interesting thing is that they all learned to speak differently. My oldest son was freely mixing up the two languages first, using words and phrases that were easier to pronounce from either until the age of about 3. Then, somehow “magically” the languages got separated in his head and he was able not only to stick to one or the other, but also translate for his grandmother (who is Polish speaking). My middle son was a very slow starter for speech (until about 3, he was pretty much getting by with “yes” or “no” in both languages), but once he started, he pretty much knew which language he wanted to use. My youngest son started speaking not in single words or phrases, but in full (mostly grammatically correct) sentences at a little over 1 year old and the languages were totally separate. Interestingly enough, he is quite a gifted musician. All three took Spanish in school and it came very naturally to them (even if my middle son “hated languages”) to the point where my oldest son is doing research for his PhD in Mexico (Chiapas) and he is able to function there. What does it all mean? I don’t know, but I think the more the young children are exposed to, the more they learn without trying to learn.

  2. My two nephews (now 10 and 6) live in Germany, go to an international School where they are taught bilingually in German and English and are spoken to by their parents predominantly in English, but with some German in the mix. Both parents are fluent in both English and German, and speak German at home when they have German vsitors. Their father’s native language is Telugu, in which he occasionally speaks to the children; they understand a few phrases but do not speak it themselves. Their father is also fluent in Hindi and may be heard doing business by telephone in any of the four languages mentioned (often switching effortlessly from one to another). The boys occasionally slip a German word into their English – but their parents also do this sometimes. They make a few grammatical errors, some of which are probably typical for children of their ages (e.g. using regular conjugations and inflections where they should be irregular), others (e.g. incorrect prepositions, ‘German’ syntax) more obviously a result of being bilingual.

  3. …Forgot to mention: When the elder boy was ready to start kindergarten, it so happened that the nearest one to their flat was a Jewish kindergarten. They wanted to send him to a bilingual German-English kindergarten. However, the German-English group was fully subscribed, but there was a German-Hebrew group that had space, so he went there. For the time he was there, he acquired som modern Hebrew vocabulary – I don’t know to what extent he was able to converse in Hebrew. I don’t think he has any recollection of Hebrew now. (Although his mother [my sister] is Jewish, his exposure to things Jewish is largely restricted to infrequent visits to his Grandparents in London.)

  4. My daughter is fluent in English, Spanish and French, and was exposed to the first two from birth, indeed from before birth, as my wife talked to her in Spanish while she was still in utero. She has been completely bilingual in English and Spanish since the age of about three, adding French from about four onwards (since she started school in France). While were driving across France on our way from England, when she was three, she said something to my wife in Spanish, and then repeated the same thing to me in English. It was clear from that moment that she had worked out which language went with which parent. She never showed the slightest suggestion of being confused between the different languages. Sometimes she would use a French word when speaking English or Spanish if she only knew the French word, but you could always tell from the slight pauses before and after the intercalated word that she knew perfectly well what she was doing. I also noticed that when there were choices she would often use the one that came more naturally to a French speaker, most obviously with the word utilize (in English, utilizar in Spanish), which means the same as use (or usar), but French only offers utilizer, as user is not synonymous. To maintain the parents’ languages I think it’s important to expose the child to as many people as possible that speak the same languages, so that she doesn’t think that her parents are the only ones who speak like that. We took her to England and Chile as often as we could.

  5. Correction: French only offers utiliser. I do know how to spell the French word, but just after writing the cognate English and Spanish words I got led astray.

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