Mixing Languages - Bilingual Children are So Smart!

Multilingual children have a lot of advantages over their monolingual peers – they tend to be more creative, perform better academically, can communicate with additional cultures, and have lower risk of diseases like Alzheimer’s.  One of the ways I see this intelligence boost all the time with my daughter is when she mixes her languages.  She just doesn’t mash languages together randomly, she does it in smart and complex ways that combine vocabulary and grammatical structures to produce meaning.

A common myth of children’s language learning in the US is that they somehow confuse languages, when the exact opposite is the case.  They know exactly what they are saying and to whom.  In fact, they are no different than adults.  Having lived abroad for 10 years in several different countries, it becomes the norm to mix languages in your speech.  Maybe it’s adding an inşallah in Turkey to a sentence indicating hope and uncertainty or using the word 包子 instead of dumpling in China.  If you are in a room where everyone is multilingual, you’ll see people switch back and forth between languages all the time because some languages are just better for explaining certain things or getting a particular point across.  As always, language is about communication and context and we choose the most appropriate language to get our meaning across in the quickest, clearest sense possible.

My father was visiting us for the week, so my daughter got to spend a lot of time using some English.  She’s always excited to practice English with others, because she knows all the people around her speak it.  Since we don’t speak it at home, she takes every opportunity she can get to practice and learn some new words.  One of the cutest things she kept saying was,  “你 open”, mixing the English and the Chinese.  Even in such a simple sentence, we can see that she puts the words in the right order to combine the grammar for both languages.  Certainly not easy, but multilingual children do it all the time and, as she gets older, we’ll see her do it in more complex ways.

One of her favorite songs she found on Youtube is a finger song that goes, “Daddy finger, daddy finger, where are you?”.  She was repeating the English for about a week and then she switched it out to be “爸爸finger, 爸爸 finger, where are you?”  I was really surprised as she’d connected the English to the Chinese.  Translation is a separate skill-set from regular language use and often requires focused practice.  This is why, when you see parents asking their children who are learning a language a question like, “What is X in Spanish?”, the children can’t answer.  Languages are understood in use, particularly for young children, and the metalinguistic concept of one language having an equivalent utterance in another is often beyond them.  This is also why you have to go to school to become a translator, it’s not something just any bilingual can do well.  Yet, my daughter had somehow made the connection for family words.  She was also doing it for “mommy” and “grandfather”.

If you’re a parent raising a multilingual child, don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’re children are confusing the languages.  Mixing languages is a normal part of the learning process and is a perfect indicator of just how smart your child is.

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