Early Language Development in Multilingual Kids

How Many Languages in My Multicultural Family?

While the multicultural population is increasing, more people are speaking more than one language. In a survey conducted by the European Commission in 2006, 56% of respondents reported being able to speak another language than their mother tongue. while the world is becoming more multilingual. Multilingualism has become a modern parenting topic. 

I speak Mandarin, my husband speaks Portuguese, and English is our mutual language. Naturally, English is also our multilingual children’s primary language. However, as we are living in Spain, our community languages are Spanish and Catalan. In other words, my children are exposed to English, Mandarin, Portuguese, Spanish and Catalan daily.

In the article of the Five Challenges faced raising a toddler in a multicultural family? I have discussed the challenges faced during the early stage of language development for a multilingual child. 

Today, I would like to share some of my personal parenting experience and knowledge about how to help your multilingual child to get through the initial language development stage. First of all, don’t worry! Learning more than one language will slow down development. However, that does that mean the toddler is confused or does not understand. It takes longer for a bilingual or multilingual child to “produce” words while he/she needs more time to organize the “language department” compared to a monolingual child. 

What Do The Experts Say?

Keep in mind that language delay is not a language disorder, and it does not happens to all the multilingual kids. You can begin by observing your child’s gesture development, he/she should be able to communicate with you by signs and sounds; Children diagnosed with a language disorder or autism often have a sign of slow gesture development. Bilingual or premature children tend to have speech delayed in their growing process, but gesture development is healthy. Always seek professional or medical advice if this is a concern to you.

Early Language Development for Multilingual Kids

Multilingual Child’s Language Development

One Parent One Language

OPOL is a well-known approach used to raise a bilingual, trilingual, or multilingual child. In general, each parent uses his or her native language to speak with the child. The approach is very appealing, and it works really well to nurture multilingualism. The key to this is parents need to be patient and consistent. 

I speak Mandarin to my toddlers, my husband speaks Portuguese to them, and among us, we speak English together. OPOL can be challenging, and I admit mixing languages when I talk to my children sometimes. There are times that I am simply confused myself and there are situations that it just feels better to describe a thing in another language rather than my native. For instance, Saudade in Portuguese is a feeling of longing and has a deep emotional connection to the person or a thing. There is no equivalent word in English and Mandarin. Therefore, switching the language channel when you need is unavoidable, don’t overstress yourself to be perfect.

Multilingual children do understand what parents are saying to them, and they are certainly not confused. While they are taking time to organize the languages in their heads, parents try your best to focus on your dominant language and eventually help them to develop into their expression of emotion. Again, with multiple inputs, children take time to produce sounds, syllables, and words in each language. When bilingual or multilingual children are ready to speak, they are remarkably good at knowing which language to use with which parents if parents can be consistent. 

Hand Signs

Simple hand signs or body language is an excellent way to communicate with your multilingual toddlers. It is also a common practice in some international schools to communicate with multilingual toddlers. You can start with something simple, such as eating and drinking. Don’t be shy about using body language as well, big expressions and dramatic tones often draw toddler’s attention very well, but make sure to keep the sentence or vocabulary simple. For example: wide open your arms with a big smile while saying, “you want a hug?” or five fingers join together pointing to your mouth saying  “you want to eat?”  Repeat hand signs and body language with simple vocabularies.

One of the main benefits of teaching your multilingual toddler hand sign is when he/she reaches around one year old, most of the tantrums was caused by “not being able to communicate.”  Having said that, hand signs communication is not only an effective way to introduce vocabulary in your native language to multilingual children, it also helps to reduce children’s frustration by being able to communicate with you using a specific gesture to notify his/her needs.

Music, Storybook and Media

While we encourage to start teaching Chinese Characters young, as I am the only Mandarin-language channel to my multilingual children in Barcelona; if you are also facing the same situation, I encourage you to be more proactive and creative. Feel free to use all kinds of educational materials such as music, books, art & craft, and tv programs. 

Yes! Manage your children’s screen time, but television does have its moment under these circumstances. Music is one of the most effective ways to stimulate language development for bilingual or multilingual children. According to the study, Music is one of the few activities that involves using the whole brain and has a direct benefit for acquiring language, improving memory, and focusing attention, physical coordination, and development. Music encourages learning and enhances communication for your bilingual or multilingual child. 

According to the principal of Di San kindergarten in Taiwan, with over 30 years of experience in early childhood education. She explains the most critical activity among all is one bedtime story a day! She continues to emphasize that bedtime stories are beneficial from many perspectives. It is certainly one of the most important bonding times between you and your child. Bedtime story allows you to interact with your multilingual children through a storyline verbally. It enhances a child’s verbal and communication skills, as there is evidence to suggest that bedtime stories can rewire the brain to accelerate their mastery of language.

Language development is different in all children, and all kids are unique in their own way. Some of the multilingual children start talking later than others, but this is also the case with some monolingual children. If your bilingual or multilingual child is facing a speech delay, keep observing and interacting with your kids. My multilingual toddler starts speaking after two years and three months old. She is almost three years old now and able to express herself in Mandarin, Portuguese, and English. Again, If you are worried, seek medical advice from a speech specialty in multilingualism. 

Early Language Development in Multilingual Kids

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