This Thanksgiving weekend, I was once again amazed by my two-year-old multilingual child. She proved, once again, that learning multiple languages is way easier than you think. As so many of us multilingual parents and bloggers have experienced, people think multiple languages will confuse a child. The thing with languages, your first or any other, is that there is just a ton to learn. This doesn't change whether you're learning one or more. The trick is that, with time, you'll figure it out. You just need enough exposure in context.
Think about the word "get" in English. It has at least 8 different meanings and that's not counting its use in phrasal verbs and idioms. How does a kid figure out all the different meanings for one word? More than that, how do they learn to use it appropriately in the correct situation? Now think about something simple, like the word "dog". It could be a dog, a pup, a puppy, a little dog, a big dog, a retriever, a pug, an ankle-biter, and on and on. How do poor kids ever figure out all the craziness? Of course we don't ask ourselves this, because children naturally learn the similarities and minute differences over time. So, if a child can learn 20 different words for dog, why wouldn't they be able to learn them in multiple languages? Learning "perro" (in Spanish) and "dog" in English, is no different from learning "dog" and "puppy".
See, context is the number 1 key to language learning. Actually, language is dependent on context. Think about how you greet someone. Is it different with a stranger, a new business client, an old friend, an ex? The context of our situation changes the language we use in each, even though we're doing the same thing each time - greeting. When it comes to language learning, children figure out not only the context for one language, but the context for multiple languages.
Back to Thanksgiving, my daughter is very vocal with me in Chinese now. If she doesn't want to do something, she says "不要". Then she uses Turkish with mom, but also some Chinese, because she knows mom understands a number of phrases. However, when interacting with the rest of the family, she simply shook her head when she didn't want something. It was clear she knew that they spoke another language and didn't understand her words, so she needed to communicate more simply. The same thing happened in a Skype chat a few weeks back. She was largely silent with her English-speaking grandparents, but finally started shouting "monkey". While she couldn't get across what she wanted to say, she knew they would understand that word and used it the best she could.
Language is context and children simply search for the correct word or phrase to use to communicate. That might mean choosing among 20 different words for dog in one language, or choosing the phrase from among different languages. Context drives communication and linguistic choice. So, the next time someone tells you that your child is getting confused with more than one language, ask them how many words they know for dog.
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