How much language does a child need to hear to become bilingual? [Transcript]

January 14, 2022

Sharon Unsworth: Welcome to Kletsheads, the podcast about bilingual children. My name is Sharon Unsworth, linguist at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and mother of two bilingual children. In this second episode of Kletsheads, we ask how much language you need to hear to become bilingual. I talk to an English teacher here in the Netherlands who has chosen to speak English to her child rather than her native Dutch. And the 11-year-old bilingual boy Loïc teaches me some French and tells me what he thinks is good about being bilingual. On with the podcast. Bilingual children grow up in many different circumstances. In some families, each parent speaks his or her own native language with a child. So, for example, mum speaks Italian and dad English. In other families, both parents speak the same language and the child only comes into contact with the language of the wider community at a childcare centre, in the playground or at school. This is, for example, what we do at home. We live in the Netherlands and both my husband and I speak English with our children, but at school with friends, in football and with the neighbours, the kids hear and speak Dutch. How much contact bilingual children have with the two languages of course depends on many other factors, not just what the parents do. Think, for example, of older siblings. In an English-speaking country, bilingual children with older siblings often hear more English than children who have no siblings or only younger siblings. When it comes to the non-English language, variously referred to as the home language, heritage language or minority language, it’s very easy in some cases to get access to films, books and apps, whilst for other languages it’s a lot more difficult and sometimes impossible.What can also affect how much input or exposure bilingual children get in their two languages is that in some families there are family members or friends nearby who also speak Turkish, Italian or Japanese. But for others, mum and dad may be the only person speaking that language with the child. All in all, this means that there can be big differences between children and how much Dutch they hear and how much they hear in the other language. The question is, of course, to what extent these differences between children also lead to differences in how well they understand and speak the two languages. How much language do you need to hear to become bilingual? In this episode of Kletsheads, we explore the answer to this question with Erika Hoff, professor at Florida Atlantic University in the USA. I started our conversation by asking Erika if the fact that bilingual children have to divide their time between their two languages means that it is inevitable that they will perform worse than their age mates who can spend all their time on one language.

Erika Hoff: No, they won’t necessarily be worse at all, but it will in all likelihood take them longer to get to the same place.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. So will that be the same, say, for all different aspects of language?

Erika Hoff: Well, no. In the long run, no. Early on, different aspects of language are very tied together in development. And so you see the effect of the split input or exposure, as you described it. You see those effects across the board in vocabulary growth and grammatical development. But in the long run, things like vocabulary development and grammatical development differ. In grammatical development, at some point, children have mastered basic aspects of the grammar. They know how to put words together. Once you know how to put words together, then you’ve accomplished that. And so in those kinds of milestones we, and other people who have studied this, see that the bilingual children catch up to the monolingual children after a lag. Vocabulary development may be different because vocabulary development sort of goes on forever. We can always keep learning new words. And that may be a place where bilinguals are different from monolinguals, are always different from monolinguals. They are not necessarily different in a way that matters in most circumstances. But they may, if you test hard enough, you may see forever a difference between someone who only uses and only reads in one language and only speaks one language and only goes to school in one language. There may be forever some differences between such a person and someone who is doing their reading and writing and speaking in two or more languages.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. So we’re talking about vocabulary. I guess the words you know are the ones that you use in the parts of life that you use your language for, right? So you might know words in one language and not in the other. You don’t have to know words in both languages.

Erika Hoff: Well, we see that in the children that we look at. One of the standardized tests we use, for example, has a picture of scissors and it’s a test of the child’s knowledge of the word scissors. And it’s far more likely that a child in the United States for whom Spanish is a minority language and English is the language they go to school in, they’re more likely to know the word “scissors” in English than they are in Spanish. And that’s just one example. There are many, many examples of words that bilinguals will know in one language and not the other because they only do that activity in one language and not the other.

Sharon Unsworth: I remember when my daughter went to school, a year or so after she started, and this is one of my favourite examples, when she got angry with me because I was doing something she didn’t want me to do or something. She’d say, “Stop, Mummy,” we speak English at home, she’d say, “Stop Mummy or I’ll put you in the gevangenis.” And “gevangenis” means prison or jail. I know full well that she simply doesn’t know that, I’m not sure she knows that word now, probably. But she definitely then didn’t know the word jail because it wasn’t a word that we’d used at home. So she got that from school, inevitably, apparently, this is something that kids say to each other in the playground when you’re angry, you’re threatened with jail.

Sharon Unsworth: So just as a carpenter knows all sorts of special words about wood and saws, wood that you and I probably don’t know, because we don’t do woodwork ourselves, bilingual children don’t know all the words in both of their languages either because they may never have come into contact with them in one or even both of their languages. This is the same for adults, too.

Sharon Unsworth: So we talked about comparing bilinguals and monolinguals. We’ve spoken about the different words that they might know and we’ve spoken about the grammar or the way they put words together into a sentence. What about when they start learning to speak? Because that’s something you often hear that bilinguals are slower at starting into, let’s say, combining words, putting words together. Is that true?

Erika Hoff: Yeah, that’s what we found. It’s that the bilingual children lag and this is a development that occurs young enough and fast enough that we actually know how long the lag is. They lag three months behind monolingual children in reaching the milestone of first starting to combine words. And these are, the bilingual children I’m talking about, are children who on average get about half of their language exposure in English and half in Spanish. The size of the lag or the length of the lag is different depending on that balance of exposure. So a child who gets 70 or 80 per cent of their exposure, say in English, will have a much shorter lag. They’ll be much less different from a monolingual child and a child who hears only 30 per cent of his language exposure in English will have a longer lag. The rate of language development at this early age is very influenced by how much exposure to a language the child hears. It goes slower if the child hears less and it goes faster if the child hears more.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. So, to be clear, we are talking about around age?

Erika Hoff: Oh, I’m talking about two and a half.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, two and a half. Right. And you said so there’s about a three-month difference. That’s comparing bilingual children in one of their languages to monolinguals?

Erika Hoff: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: And what happens if you take the other language into account?

Erika Hoff: If you take the other language into account bilingual children and monolingual children look remarkably the same at this early age. You can at a young age, it gets hard to do with older children, but at a young age, you can pretty much count all the words a child knows. And if you count all the words that bilingual children know in their two languages, it is very much like the number of words that a monolingual child knows in just that one language.

Sharon Unsworth: So when it comes to how children put their sentences together, what we call the grammar, then once children have learned the very structures that they need, they can use these to create new sentences with any words. What Erika and her colleagues have found is that it can take some bilingual children a bit longer than children who speak only one language to start combining words into sentences. This doesn’t hold across all children, though. The difference between bilingual and monolingual children, or the lag as Erika refers to here, is related to how much input or exposure the children get in the language in question. Bilingual children with more exposure are more likely to develop as quickly as monolingual children of the same age. Another important thing to bear in mind is that the differences between bilingual and monolingual children disappear when you take both of the bilingual children’s languages into account. This holds for both the age of which children start combining words and for how many words the children know.

Sharon Unsworth: Many researchers argue that we shouldn’t always be comparing bilinguals with monolinguals. Not all bilinguals are the same. And to a certain extent, this also holds for monolinguals too, especially in early childhood. So comparing the two with all the well-defined groups makes little sense. And worldwide there are more bilinguals than there are monolinguals. So monolinguals aren’t always the norm. There’s definitely something to be said for this, but in many countries, such as the Netherlands and the UK or the US, schools are designed with monolingual children in mind. This holds for many of the standardised language tests that schools and speech and language therapists use when it comes to assessing children and their language development: the norms are very often based on monolingual children. As long as this is the case comparisons between bilingual and monolingual children are inevitable. Erika explained how important it is to take into account all the factors that can influence children’s language development when you’re making such a comparison. One of these factors is the parents’ level of education, which is often used as an indicator of what’s called socioeconomic status.

Erika Hoff: Socioeconomic status is a very strong predictor of language development. And if you look at norms, so big, large databases of the age at which children do things, if those norms are done well, they include a range of children from lots of different backgrounds. And bilingual children who get studied also come from a range of different backgrounds. And it’s just important to compare like to like.

Sharon Unsworth: So if you compare bilinguals with parents who’ve got a different level of education, say, lower than your monolinguals, then you might find differences between the two, but it might not necessarily be due to them being bilingual.

Erika Hoff: Absolutely right.

Sharon Unsworth: You mentioned before that it can really matter how much of a language bilingual children hear and we know that that varies, right? Some children only hear a bit of the language, the minority language, and others hear that most of the time, especially in their early years when they’re at home. One of the questions I think parents have is: how much input is enough? How much language do you need to hear to be able to become bilingual? Do we know the answer to that?

Erika Hoff: I don’t think we know. It’s a question people talk about and people have tried to do research on. Clearly, there is some limit to how much information children can process at a time. You couldn’t take a monolingual child and just talk to it twice as much and then that baby would learn to talk twice as fast.

Sharon Unsworth: Right, right.

Erika Hoff: The experiments have never been done, but nobody doubts the outcome of it. On the other hand, within the normal range of experience that children have, I don’t think there’s any convincing evidence that allows us to say a certain number of hours a day and then everything else is extra and doesn’t matter. And the way people often ask the question about bilingual children is: is 80 per cent the same as a 100 per cent, is 70 per cent the same as a 100 per cent? I think the best answer to that is: no. That is, every extra amount makes a difference. Whether it’s a detectable difference or an important difference is, again, another matter. What often happens and this should be, I think, a comfort to parents who are trying to raise their children as bilinguals in a monolingual world, which is often, the circumstance for schools is that where the schools are designed for monolingual children, they are still designed for a range of monolingual children.

Erika Hoff: Bilingual children are doing more. They are learning two languages. But the fact of the matter is, with a lot of support, children can do two languages and not be at a great disadvantage, particularly if they’re dominant in one language. And that’s usually the case, that a perfectly balanced bilingual is kind of a rare creature.

Sharon Unsworth: I always say it’s a very monolingual perspective on bilingualism.

Erika Hoff: When we see children who come from bilingual homes, the children who have the most English dominant exposure are very close and sometimes not noticeably different from the monolingual children. The children whose exposure is primarily in Spanish have a different outcome.

Sharon Unsworth: Bilingual children who know exactly the same in both languages are rare. According to Erika, all the language input a child hears is important. But whether you really hear the difference between a child who hears English 80 per cent of the time and a child who hears English a 100 per cent of the time is questionable. With a rich language environment and parents who support their language development, bilingual children can function just as well at school as their monolingual classmates. And certainly when the school language is the one that they’re better in.

Sharon Unsworth: We’re talking about the way in which, you know, how much you hear the language can affect the development of that language. So is it really an effect on how quickly you learn the language or is it also an effect on where you end up, how well you end up speaking it?

Erika Hoff: I think the best answer to that question is that the amount you hear a language influences how quickly you acquire it. But your ultimate level of proficiency is going to be more a function of the circumstances in which you hear that language and the uses to which you put that language. The nature or the quality of your language exposure is going to affect the ultimate accomplishment, but the amount will affect the rate. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

Sharon Unsworth: Okay, we’ll get to quality in a minute. For now, let’s first listen to our Kletshead of the Week.


Kletshead of the Week

Loïc: My name is Loïc. I am 11 years old, I live in England and I speak English and French.

Sharon Unsworth: So who do you speak English with and who do you speak French with?

Loïc: I speak English mostly with my dad, but I speak French mostly with my mum.

Sharon Unsworth: Anybody else you speak French with?

Loïc: Like all my French side of my family.

Sharon Unsworth: And have you got like cousins and stuff that you speak French with?

Loïc: Yeah, but they are all in Belgium.

Sharon Unsworth: They are all in Belgium? You speak French with them?

Loïc: Yeah, I do.

Sharon Unsworth: So what’s the best thing about being bilingual?

Loïc: The best thing is that I have a wider span of languages. And it’s like kind of funny because like a few people in my school of French, we can just talk and nobody knows what we’re saying.

Sharon Unsworth: So it’s like a secret language basically. So you can gossip about everybody and nobody understands. And is there anything that’s less fun about it?

Loïc: No, it’s great. It’s great having another language because you have a wider span of people that you know because they live in different countries. And also I find it easier to learn other languages, like other than French.

Sharon Unsworth: Oh yeah, tell me about that then.

Loïc: So we’re learning German right now and I can do like the rolling ‘rrr’, like that. When you say like rouge and when you say ‘…’. You do the ‘rrr’, like you do in French. And nobody in my class can do that because because I speak French, I can do it.

Sharon Unsworth: And is it important to you that you can speak both languages?

Loïc: Yes, because if I only knew how to speak English, I wouldn’t have that wide connection with my cousins or my grandparents. Because right now I can speak in their native language and they find that easier.

Sharon Unsworth: When you’re older, imagine that you have your own children. What language do you think you’ll speak to them?

Loïc: Both language that I know. Well actually, no, all the languages that I know. So that they know all the languages that I know. And so they advance in the same pace that I did when I was their age.

Sharon Unsworth: So what languages will that be then? What languages do you think you know when you’re older?

Loïc: German and Spanish.

Sharon Unsworth: You can learn all of those?

Loïc: I’ll try to.

Sharon Unsworth: Do you ever switch languages? Change from speaking English to French?

Loïc: Yeah I do that quite a lot, I would say. I say quite a lot “Oui” and then I would just carry on in English and then halfway through I say a word in French. When I don’t know a word in English, I always say it in French, because dad and mum both know what that means, it’s just easier. So let’s add the word for “carrot.” I would just say “une carotte” and because that sounds similar, it would remind me of the English word “carrot.”

Sharon Unsworth: And are there some words you only ever say in one language?

Loïc: I say quite a lot “oui,” maybe more than I say “yes.”

Sharon Unsworth: It’s kind of funny, right, because oui means something else in English.

Loïc: Yeah, “we.”

Sharon Unsworth: So that never end up with some funny situations?

Loïc: No because dad knows what it means. Vacation or something. I never say it like in school.

Sharon Unsworth: Oh, OK. That might lead to some funny situations, mightn’t it. Yeah. Have you got a favourite word in French?

Loïc: Probably. I really like saying the word chamallow, which means marshmallow.

Sharon Unsworth: Chamallow. I don’t know that word. Why do you like that word so much?

Loïc: I just like saying it. It sounds like, instead of saying marshmallow, marshmallow sounds a bit more like spiky but chamallow sounds round, soft.

Sharon Unsworth: Gooey.

Loïc: Yeah, not gooey.

Sharon Unsworth: And is it also because you quite like marshmallows?

Loïc: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Okay. What’s your favourite way to eat your marshmallow?

Loïc: Probably just raw to be honest.

Sharon Unsworth: Can you read in French?

Loïc: Yes, look, to be honest, I actually taught myself how to read in French.

Sharon Unsworth: Tell me how you did that then.

Loïc: Well, my granny who lives in Belgium, she gave me these comics. Well, she didn’t give them, but when I went over there I would start to, I didn’t know how I did it, but I just started to read in French. I would just know what the word would mean because I know what the word, how it sounds. The word “oui,” that was hard to be honest, because that’s o-u-i.

Sharon Unsworth: Do you still read comics in French then?

Loïc: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: What’s your favourite?

Loïc: Les Schtroumpfs.

Sharon Unsworth: Is that the Smurfs?

Loïc: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Have you ever read the same book in both languages?

Loïc: Asterix and Obelix.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Is that better in French or better in English?

Loïc: I prefer in French because I think English people copied it from the French. And in the English, the jokes are really bad. Do you like a joke in French and it’s really hard to convert that. So they say a completely different word and it’s not as funny.

Sharon Unsworth: Can you teach me a word in French?

Loïc: You know the word for “tree”?

Sharon Unsworth: Arbre.

Loïc: Yeah. I have a good one: floor boards.

Sharon Unsworth: I definitely don’t know that word.

Loïc: Planche.

Sharon Unsworth: “Planche.” So which language do you like to speak the most?

Loïc: French.

Sharon Unsworth: French. Why?

Loïc: Because when you speak French you feel like you’re like more part of a community. Because in English feels just normal. Because once I went to school in Belgium and I felt more part of the school. I just felt more part of the school, more than in England, because in England I still find it normal. And in Belgium, I didn’t find it normal.

Sharon Unsworth: Let me see if I understand what you mean. Is it like because when you’re in England, everybody speaks English, and so then speaking French makes you feel different and belong to a different community. Is that what you mean?

Loïc: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Would you do it again? Would you go back to Belgium to go to school again?

Loïc: Yeah. Because last time we went I didn’t know that much French. And at the playground people didn’t play with me much, because I didn’t know how to speak. It’s a bit like if you’re Spanish and you’re moving to Germany. You really have to speak German. You are not at all used to it and it’s different completely. If I move again to Belgium and go to school, I would be actually still in primary school, but I would be at top of the school. And right now I’d love to go to school in Belgium because it’s kind of really fun being at the top of the school. I know more French, so I can talk to people more. I will be included more.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Have you ever had kids in your school who came to school and spoke a different language, but didn’t speak English very well?

Loïc: We have a Chinese girl and she barely speaks in class. And she still can speak, but I think she’s not that used to speaking in English.

Sharon Unsworth: Do you think you have a better idea of how she feels then? Because of when you went to Belgium, this kind of like that to, right?

Loïc: Definitely. It feels more daunting and feels more embarrassing.

Sharon Unsworth: Embarrassing? What do you mean by embarrassing?

Loïc: Because you can’t speak it. If you don’t know a word and the headteacher is like “Hello, how are you” presenting you to the whole school? And you don’t know the word for like, so let’s see, they ask you “When did you come here?” You don’t know the word for yesterday. You just stand there. You won’t say anything.

Sharon Unsworth: So going back to the Chinese girl in your class, what would you tell everybody? What would you tell a teacher to do? What advice would you give them to make it better or easier for someone like her who can’t speak English very well?

Loïc: I would give them more opportunity to speak up. More opportunity, so she learns and also I would ask her how long she’s been in England, certainly if she’s been here for like a month, I would tell the English teacher to include her way more.

Sharon Unsworth: Okay, that’s your advice. Good advice there, Loïc. So we’re going to finish. And I always finish by asking whoever I’m talking to tell me how to say “thank you” and “goodbye.”

Loïc: Merci et au revoir.

Sharon Unsworth: Ok. Merci et au revoir, Loïc.

Loïc: Merci Sharon, au revoir.

Sharon Unsworth: So, Erika, you just mentioned that it’s not only how much language you hear, but the kind of language you hear, so the quality of the language you hear, that can have an effect on bilingual children’s language development. What do you mean exactly by quality?

Erika Hoff: Well, I can answer that in a couple of different ways. One dimension of quality has to do with the purposes to which language is put. The vocabulary and grammatical structures that you use at home, talking about home sorts of things, putting children to bed at night, feeding them breakfast in the morning, uses a fairly limited range of vocabulary, even among the most proficient speakers in the world. On the other hand, language that’s used in school, language that you read in, a language that you work in, is going to draw on a larger vocabulary and a richer range of grammatical structures. So one aspect of quality, to oversimplify again, is: is it a home language or is it also an academic language and a workplace language? Another factor that influences quality, even within just home language use, is the language proficiency of the speaker. And this might not be obvious, that is, if you’re talking to a two-year-old, who after all doesn’t know very much about the language, and you’re just talking about what to eat for breakfast. You wouldn’t think that the proficiency differences between a native speaker and a non-native speaker would matter, how hard is it to talk about eating your cereal? We have recorded mothers talking to their children playing with toys and doing ordinary home kind of things. Some of these mothers are native speakers of English and some of them are native speakers of Spanish, but who use the English that they know in interacting with their children. And we find differences. We find differences in the range of vocabulary that’s used and we find differences in the complexity of the grammatical structures that are used. And importantly, the limits in the range of vocabulary limits what we call the informativeness of the language. That is, children have to figure out the patterns of language from the speech they hear and some speech is more revealing of those patterns than others. Speech that uses a rich vocabulary is more revealing of those patterns. So what we find, looking at just monolingual children, is the richness of the vocabulary in the speech they hear and the complexity of the grammatical structures in the speech they hear, are positive predictors of their language development. And parents who are not native speakers, particularly low proficiency, non-native speakers, do not use the same rich vocabulary and the same level of grammatical structures. And so that’s another measure of quality.

Sharon Unsworth: So the quality of the language input is important. Quality can refer to the context in which the language is used and who is providing language input to the child. The language of the children hear at school contains a larger variety of words than the language that children hear at home. The sentences are also much more complex. This makes sense because the subjects you talk about at school are much more complex than what you talk about at home. The people who talk to a child can also differ in how fluent they are, how many words they use, whether they ask a lot of questions or the extent to which they explain things to the child. Erika told us about research, that she and her colleagues have done in the US, showing that Spanish-speaking parents who had learned English as a second language and who spoke English rather than Spanish to their toddlers, talk to their children in a different way than parents who were native speakers of English. The second language learners tended to use less complex grammatical structures and the number of different words they used was more limited. What Erika and her colleagues found was that this impacted on the language development of the children. Toddlers who heard more input from second language learners of English and less input from native speakers had poorer language skills in English, at least at this early age.

Sharon Unsworth: In a recent study that we did here in the Netherlands looking at three-year-old bilingual children learning Dutch as one of their two languages. We found that what mattered wasn’t so much whether the children heard Dutch input from native speakers rather than second language learners, but how fluent the second language learners were who spoke Dutch to their children. Now, what can we conclude from these findings? Well, one conclusion is that you shouldn’t speak your second language to your child if you don’t speak it very well. The million-dollar question, of course, is how well do you need to speak a second language in order to be able to speak it to your child and for the input you provide to have an impact? I think a good rule of thumb is that you need to be able to speak the language well enough to have the relationship you want to have with your child. So you need to be able to feel comfortable talking about all the kinds of things you need to talk to a child about as a parent in that language. Now, you might also be tempted to conclude from these findings that if you speak your second language well enough, then it’s a good idea to use this with your child. Here, I’d say; just because you can doesn’t mean to say that you should, at least not all the time. Let’s say you live in an English-speaking country, but you’re originally from Poland. If you’re the only person around who speaks Polish with your child, then switching to English, even if you’re very proficient, is probably not a good idea. Because that basically means your child is not going to hear any Polish and will likely not end up speaking the language very well, if at all. Which means that they might not be able to develop meaningful relationships with grandparents and other family members. And they won’t be able to profit from the various advantages which being bilingual entails. In such circumstances, you can better concentrate on providing as much Polish input as possible. If your children hear English from your partner, from other adults and at childcare or at school, they’ll manage without input in English from you to. Imagine though, the reverse situation, so you’re a Polish native speaker living in Poland and your partner is a native speaker of English. In this situation, it might well make sense for you to speak English, your second language, at least some of the time and of course, assuming you speak it well enough. The logic is essentially the same. If your children hear Polish at childcare or eat school and from your wider family, then they’ll likely manage without your input in Polish, too. And the chances of developing into a fully-fledged bilingual, who actively use and speak both languages will be much greater. In the next part of the podcast, we hear from an English teacher here in the Netherlands who chose to do just this. She speaks English to her child, a language which isn’t her native language but is one that she speaks very well.


Let’s Klets

Marjolein: Hi, my name is Marjolein. I live in Rijssen and I speak English with my child.

Sharon Unsworth: But you’re not a native speaker, I understand.

Marjolein: No, that’s correct.

Sharon Unsworth: Although, I can’t tell by listening to you. So I guess the first question is what made you decide to speak English to your child?

Marjolein: Well, I’m an English teacher and I love English, of course. But I’ve also studied a bit of linguistics at university and I’m very aware that the earlier you start learning a language or acquiring a language, the more likely you are to become pretty good at it. From my own experience, both my parents used to live in the east of the Netherlands and they knew the dialects growing up. And they never spoke it with me or my sisters. When we all moved to the east, everyone was making fun of my funny dialect and I tried to emulate what other people sounded like and couldn’t do it. So it was a bit traumatic. So yeah, I want him to at least be able to do the sounds correctly and I think it would be pretty embarrassing as an English teacher if your child couldn’t do English in school. So I guess that’s where it came from.

Sharon Unsworth: So you wanted to give them the chance to be become bilingual, even though they’re not necessarily growing up in a naturally bilingual context?

Marjolein: Exactly. Yeah. And I think primary schools do teach English more and more, but I think it’s not nearly enough. I think the attention paid to English starts too late at secondary schools. I know from teaching at secondary schools how hard it is for some to reach an appropriate level of English. I wanted to be ahead of the game.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So, tell us about your child. How old is he?

Marjolein: Well, his name is Owen and he’s going to turn two in November of this year. So he’s one year and a bit over ten months at the moment. And he’s a little chatterbox.

Sharon Unsworth: So and a chatterbox in English, in Dutch or in both?

Marjolein: In both actually. For some objects and animals he only knows the English word, because while I’m at home with him two days a week by myself, those are the days that I speak English with him. We read lots of books and we sing songs, so then he only hears the English names for certain animals. So then he has adopted those words. It took his childminder a while to figure out that he was saying things in English, even though they were quite clear to me, but he would say things like “butterfly.” And in Dutch it sounds very different, it’s vlinder. and so she wasn’t aware of what he was trying to point out.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. It’s different, isn’t it? I’m sure if a grown-up had said to her “butterfly” she probably would have understood. But it’s different, isn’t it? When children are speaking the language?

Marjolein: You don’t expect it. Even after days. When he’s been with his grandparents or with a childminder for a day, then when he comes home, he’s kind of in a Dutch settings. So he will call me “mama” and his father he will call “papa.” And when he spent the day with me and his father comes home, he’ll call him “Daddy.” So it’s like he has different settings.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Do you know what? My kids do that too. So we only speak English and then I’m known as “mommy.” Then if they’ve had a friend around for the afternoon and they’re totally gone over to Dutch mode, and then they’ll say to me “mama.” It always takes me a while to think “Oh yeah, you’re talking to me,” because I’m not called “mama.” It’s interesting to hear that your son does that too. Yeah. So what’s your approach then? Did I understand correctly that you speaking English on certain days or do you only speak English with him?

Marjolein: No. I speak English with him when we’re alone together. So as soon as his dad comes home we switch to Dutch because his dad’s level of English is a bit lower. It’s not bad by any means, but yeah, we just switch to Dutch then. And sometimes when I get a little embarrassed when we’re alone, but we go out and there’s other people around, I may switch to Dutch as well just to avoid people staring at us. But sometimes I just don’t mind. So today we went to the playground and I’ll speak English too. And even when people pass by.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Can I ask what do you feel embarrassed about?

Marjolein: I don’t know. I guess it’s uncommon where we live. I live in a very small town in the east of the Netherlands, so there’s not many tourists. So you don’t really hear English in the street at all. So just any time someone speaks English, people will look up and notice and pay attention. I know I do when I hear someone speak English in my town because it’s so rare. So I guess that’s why.

Sharon Unsworth: Not wanting to draw attention to yourself? So how have people reacted to that in your environment about you making the decision to speak English to some of the time?

Marjolein: Most people are pretty supportive and think it’s quite cool and brave. I think most people understand why I do it and I think many of them wished they could.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. What do you think the future looks like for him then?

Marjolein: So I guess what I’m worried about is that I’m doing more harm than good in the long run because you just can’t tell. And I’m often a bit worried about not being a native speaker myself. I know I’m quite proficient, but I do make occasional mistakes that a native speaker might not make. So I mean, I believe in what I’m doing and that’s why I’m doing it. I’m very hopeful that in the end, he will benefit from speaking English with me. But there is this tiny part of me that worries that maybe he’ll fall behind because of what I’m doing or maybe I’m teaching the wrong things. But I guess only time will tell.

Sharon Unsworth: Well, ultimately, for your specific case, only time will tell. But, you know, I think anybody listening to this will think, “Well, you know, you can’t tell you’re not a native speaker.” So I wouldn’t worry about that at all.

Marjolein: Yeah, and sometimes when he pronounces things, he has such a lovely accent. So, I think either I’m showing him the right kind of YouTube videos or he’s picking up some nice sounds from me.

Sharon Unsworth: You sound kind of a little bit Australian.

Marjolein: Yeah, well, I’m glad you said that because I felt I was losing it a bit.

Sharon Unsworth: So you’ve been to Australia?

Marjolein: Yeah, a long time ago when I was 16. So that’s gosh, that’s 20 years ago now. I went to Australia for a year. But after that, when I went to university to study English, I switched to British English as an accent. But the professors kept telling me that my vowels were all wrong.

Sharon Unsworth: People tell me that all the time, but don’t believe anything of it. So if there are people listening who are thinking “Actually, I speak English or another language really well, or I speak my partner’s language also really well, should I speak that language to my child?” What piece of advice would you give to other parents wanting to do the same?

Marjolein: I think as long as you feel confident doing it, most of the time, then you should. I consider it a gift to my child. The gift of being able to speak another language in the future. I plan to travel with my son because my husband doesn’t like to travel and I love travelling. So I plan to travel and then I think what better gift can I give him than for him to be able to communicate with the people he meets from different cultures in different countries. And I guess if you speak a second language that family members speak, maybe that’s the only language they speak, then what better gift can you give your children than to be able to communicate with the family members?

Sharon Unsworth: Okay, so I think we’re going to wrap it up for this particular episode. Maybe we can finish by talking about what these findings mean for what teachers can expect from bilingual children.

Erika Hoff: Well, I think teachers and for that matter, parents and speech-language pathologists, have to recognize that language acquisition is not a magical process. It takes time. It takes exposure. And the children who are acquiring two languages are doing more than the children who are acquiring just one. It will take them more time. And the fact that the bilingual children may not have as big a vocabulary and may not be as advanced speakers as the monolingual children is normal. It’s to be expected, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the child. So parents and teachers need to have reasonable expectations and not use their idea of what’s typical for a three-year-old or a five-year-old in monolinguals and evaluate a bilingual child against that standard. They would come to a wrong conclusion about the bilingual child’s abilities.

Sharon Unsworth: So there’s no real clear answer to the question of how much of a language you need to hear in order to become bilingual. But what research has shown is that how much a child comes into contact with his or her two languages and the type of input that they get in those languages, both have an effect. Here in the Netherlands, as in many countries around the world, bilingual children have to function in a largely monolingual environment when it comes to school. So, as I said earlier, this means that it’s the language development of monolingual children that’s considered the norm. And inevitably, bilingual children are regularly compared to their monolingual age mates, especially when we’re talking about the language of school. So when you think about how well a bilingual child can speak the language of school, as a parent, a teacher or a speech and language therapist, it’s important that you take into account the fact that bilingual children often hear less of the language spoken at school than their monolingual peers, and they might not always hear the language used in the same contexts or by proficient speakers. And all of this can have consequences for what you can expect from them when it comes to their development in that language. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to be worse, but it does mean that it’s quite possible that they might be different. If you want to know more about Kletsheads, go to That’s where you’ll also find more information about this episode. And if you want to make sure you don’t miss an episode, subscribe to Kletsheads using your favourite podcast app. Make sure you select the English edition. And if you’ve enjoyed the show, why not share it with a friend? Thanks for listening. And as we say Dutch: tot de volgende keer.

This transcript was generated using and was checked by Marieke van den Akker.

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