Will Using Two Languages To Communicate With Babies Confuse Them? – Myths, Tips & Advantages

Being amongst the majority of parents raising a child in more than one language household, I have heard various myths and misconceptions about bilingualism. In my quest to unravel the truth, I’ve come to learn that more than half of the world’s population is bilingual as many children have been raised to be bilingual and multilingual in many parts of the world, so it can’t be that half of the world’s population is confused.

According to A Short Guide To Raising Children Bilingually, children who are exposed to both languages daily with at least 30% exposure will be bilingual while children who are exposed less than 30% to the second language will not be able to effectively communicate in the second language.

Another study suggests that when children divide their time equally between their 2 spoken languages, which is 50% exposure to one language and 50% to the other language, their 2 languages develop like that of monolingual children for the most part even though, many bilingual children at this stage may show speech or development delay or even a total incomplete development in one of their languages if their exposure is too limited to that language.

In this amazing article, I’ll take you through the various methods of teaching our babies two or more languages and the advantages that come with it as we debunk the myths surrounding our kiddo’s multi-language development.

Will speaking two languages at home confuse your baby?

A mom who's reading to her daughter in two languages, to teach her both of them over time.

No. Not at all. Studies have shown that bilingual babies, meaning those who learn or speak two or more languages at home or in school, can sometimes show differences in their language development than monolingual babies, meaning those who solely speak one language but are by no means confused from learning a second language. 

Experts believe that if bilingual children are given a chance to be adequately exposed to both languages daily from birth, they will meet the same developmental milestones in language development such as first words, babbling, and grammatical development at the same age as monolingual children.

Benefits of raising babies with multiple languages

The greatest contention against introducing diverse languages at a young age seems to be that teaching them more than one language will cause delayed speech developmental milestones or, at worse, confuse them. There are arguments on both sides of the divide; however, studies show that teaching your babies two languages is beneficial.

The benefits of being a bilingual child include:

  • Open-mindedness and acceptance.
  • The ability to communicate with the extended family.
  • Future job openings.
  • A more diverse cultural upbringing.
  • The ability to acquire more languages in the future.
  • An increased ability to focus.
  • Delayed onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Neuroplasticity.

How to teach your babies two or more languages

A mom trying to teach her baby daughter two languages, by reading with one and talking to her with the other.

There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to successfully bringing up bilingual babies. It is all about finding what works best for you and your little one. Below are five widespread methods for raising bilingual babies and how they can support your baby’s bilingual development.

One person one language (OPOL)

The one person one language technique is where each parent consistently speaks a different language to the baby. This could mean the mother speaks her native African dialect, like in my case, while the father speaks to her in English.

This approach is regarded as the best method for teaching babies two languages because it results in minimal mixing and ensures that your babies have regular exposure to both languages.

It is also an effective method when the parents’ two languages are different from the main language used outside the home. For example, with a Luo-speaking mother (me) and an English-speaking father and living in Kenya, my daughter will learn Swahili as her third language by playing with other babies or school. It only requires a lot of commitment from the parents to avoid mixing languages.

Minority language at home ([email protected])

Many parents find that the minority language needs extra support even though children need support in every language they speak, making many families adopt the minority language at home approach, meaning the minority language is used with the kids at home by both parents.

For example, both parents speak Luo at home, whether it’s the native language of both parents or not, while living in Kenya where Lilly learns to speak Swahili outside the home.

Time and place (T&P)

The time and place method is mostly used in bilingual schools whereby for example, in the morning everyone speaks one language, and in the afternoon everyone speaks another language. Alternatively, it could mean that two days of the week are for the majority language while the remaining three days are for the local minority language.

This approach can be adjusted to suit individual families, and it could even mean a seasonal approach. For example, the majority language is used most of the time, while the minority language is used over the weekend or even during summer vacations to coincide with the family holiday to the country where the language is vocal.

Mixed language policy (MLP)

With this policy, parents use the language that is convenient to the occasion. For example, the majority language may be used to help with school work projects, while the minority language may be used to discuss personal affairs.

Two parents, two languages (2P2L)

The two parents’ two languages are for parents who are bilingual themselves. For example, the father speaks to her in English and French while I speak with her in Swahili and Luo. 

Regardless of which method you choose, your babies will need as much consistent input and credible support in each language to avoid code-mixing. 

Tips for parents raising bilingual babies

A muslim mom teaching her baby boy two languages at home.
  • Ensure the setting values your home language as your baby’s first language.
  • Stick to speaking your community’s language at home.
  • Ensure staff knows some essential words in your language.
  • Ensure your baby is confident to communicate her needs to staff members or key people.
  • Speak to your child in your home language when you are settling her into the setting.
  • To see how she is progressing in each language, share information with your child’s key person.
  • Create an opportunity for your child to make friends with other children who speak the same language.
  • Reply to your child in your home language when they speak to you in English.
  • Collaborate with your child’s nursery setting to have activities that you can share with her at home.
  • Ensure a clear understanding between yourselves and your baby’s key person.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the best age for babies to learn a second language?  

It is best to wait until your child is 2-½ or until she has undergone a vocabulary explosion between 18 – 20 months if you haven’t begun the second language in the first year.

According to Barbara Zurer Pearson, the special window of opportunity for young children to learn two languages can be discouraging to older babies. While it is true that it is easier to start earlier, children can learn a second language at any age.

Can babies learn 3 languages at once? 

Yes. There is no proven evidence that learning 2 or 3 languages by young children at the same time will get them mixed up between the two. Like adults, they can mix up the two languages in the same sentence or the same conversation but normally use languages separately, according to research.

Can babies learn a language from TV?

Children under the age of 2 can not learn a language from watching videos or programs billed as educational from watching the television. Babies develop new language skills and learn through real talk from real grown-ups and not from videos or TV. 

How long does it take for a child to learn a language?

It takes a child 720 hours for a child to learn group 2-4 languages, whereas it takes them an equivalent of 480 hours to reach the basic fluency in group 1 languages.

If you put in 10 hours a day to help them learn a new language, then the basic fluency in the easy category should take 48 days while the difficult languages will take up to 72 hours.

Does speaking two languages cause speech delay in babies?

If your child has a speech delay, it will certainly occur in both languages because language development is different in all babies. Some bilingual babies will start talking later than others, and so is with monolingual babies.

If you are worried, seek medical advice from a speech therapist because bilingualism does not cause speech delay, and if your bilingual child has signs of speech delay doesn’t mean that they are confused.

Takeaway

Letting your children speak their mother tongue or the minority language has a lot to do with how we as parents culturally identify ourselves from our cultural backgrounds and heritage, even though there is no exact study to prove that a certain degree of exposure will allow for a child to be fully bilingual. Some parents know early on that they wish to teach their children their mother tongue and other languages to keep their traditions going. 

And as time goes by, they get to adopt methods based on what language aid the little ones need as they get older and the strategies will constantly evolve as they grow.

What about you? Have you decided to teach your little linguists two languages or more? We’d love to hear about your experiences and the methods you are using to support their language development in the comments section below.

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