Sharon Unsworth: Welcome to Kletsheads. The podcast about bilingual children. My name is Sharon Unsworth, linguist at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, a mother of two bilingual children. In this episode of Kletsheads, we’ve got our second edition of Hot Off the Press, where I tell you about a piece of recent research asking what matters most, how much input you hear as a bilingual child, or how old you are when you first start learning the language. And we hear from our first Kletshead from the continent of Africa, 13-year-old Rehoboth, who tells us why he only dreams in English and how he thinks it’s unfair if you don’t get taught in your heritage language at school. He also tries to teach me some Xsitonga. Keep listening to find out more.
Hot off the Press
Sharon Unsworth: In Hot off the Press, I tell you about a new piece of research on bilingual children. I summarize the most important findings for you and try to translate them into practice. In this episode, I’ve chosen a piece of research which deals with a subject we’ve spoken a lot about in Kletsheads already, namely the role of language input. Now we know already that language input, how much language children hear is important and can affect how quickly children learn their two languages, especially in the early years. What we don’t know so much about is what happens after this. So when bilingual children get older, when they start school and have been at school for a few years, does variation in how much input children hear in their two languages still matter for older bilingual children? That’s what this study is about. It was carried out in Canada by Elin Thordardottir, who’s a professor at McGill University in Montreal. She’s also a speech language therapist, and much of her research is on topics that are directly relevant to clinical practice, and this one is no exception.
Sharon Unsworth: The study in question deals not only with the role of the amount of input that children hear, but also the timing of the input. Now, what do we mean by timing? This is basically the age at which you first have contact with the language. So some bilingual children come into contact with both or all of their languages from birth, or at least very shortly thereafter. For example, children whose parents speak different languages, so they use the one parent, one language strategy. They will come into contact with both of their languages from birth, but also children whose parents say speak a different language than the one spoken in the wider community. For example, Arabic parents raising a child in Germany, and the child goes to childcare very early on and learns the language of the community, so German from a very early age, too, but outside the home. The technical term we have for this kind of bilingual is simultaneous bilinguals, and I’m going to refer to them here as early bilinguals. Other bilingual children first learn one language at home and then only start with a second. When they start preschool or primary school or elementary school or whatever it’s called, wherever you are. And the technical term for this kind of bilingual is sequential or successive bilinguals. In the U.K., I think they’re called EAL children. So English is an Additional Language. I’m going to call them late bilinguals. So these are children who have contact with their second language around the age of four or older.
Sharon Unsworth: So the first question asked in this study is whether we see differences between these two types of bilingual children after they’ve been at school for a while. Does timing of input still matter then? And to what extent do these bilingual children reach the same level as their monolingual peers? The second question concerns the amount of input. Now, much of the research on the role of language input and its effect on how quickly children learn their two languages focuses on younger children, usually between the ages of two and five. And these are almost always early, simultaneous, bilingual children. We don’t know to what extent the amount of language input also plays a role when these children get older. This is of practical importance because if it turns out that how much input children hear is still relevant for older children, we need to take this into account when assessing these children, either when they’re tested at school or tested as part of a clinical assessment.
Sharon Unsworth: The participants were children growing up in Montreal, all attending French language school. There were three groups, so monolingual children who heard French at home and at school and then two groups of bilinguals. So the early bilinguals and the late bilinguals. So the early bilinguals heard French from before age three, often from birth, alongside another language. And the late bilinguals started learning French after the age of three, usually around age four. Again, alongside another language. There were children who were six years old and there were also children who were eight years old.
Sharon Unsworth: Children’s knowledge of French was assessed using a number of standardized tests. So these are tests which have been normed. They’re usually used to see how well children perform in relation to the average for their age. I think it’s worthwhile pointing out that in many countries, especially those where the educational system remains very monolingual, these language tests are usually normed on monolingual children only. So Elin Thordardottir looked at three different aspects. Passive vocabulary, so how many words a child recognizes. So in this test they see four different pictures and have to point to the right picture once they’ve heard a word. In active vocabulary, it’s basically the other way around, so this refers to how many words you know, when communicating yourself so there children saw a picture of an object or an action and they had to describe it with the right word. And finally, what’s called word structure, so that’s basically regular and irregular plurals like cow-cows, sheep-sheep, regular and irregular verbs like eat-eaten, run-ran. So that’s past tense, but also conjugating verbs like eat-eats, comparisons fast-faster-fastest. So those kinds of aspects of language, what we call morphosyntax. And the parents also had a task. They had to complete a questionnaire with all kinds of questions about language use inside and outside the home at the moment the children were tested, but also in the past, and all this information was combined into one score indicating the percentage of language input that the children had had in French from birth until the age of six or eight.
Sharon Unsworth: What are the main findings then of this study? So first Thordardottir looks at the scores on the tasks in French. And what she found was that late bilinguals mostly scored higher than the early bilinguals, and the monolinguals higher than the bilinguals. Further analysis revealed that these differences were best accounted for by the amount of input that children had had, rather than the timing of that input. In other words, to quote, the title of this study “amount trumps timing”, and that’s in line with previous research looking at this specific topic. So that’s the first finding.
Sharon Unsworth: The second finding was that despite the fact that the late bilinguals had less language input overall, their scores were often as high as the early bilinguals. This is also in line with previous research showing that older children often pick up a language more quickly than younger children, especially at the start. In short, then an early start is not necessary to become a successful bilingual. At least when you look at children whose age of onsets or the age at which they started was before around age six.
Sharon Unsworth: Finally, we zoom in on children who had English as their only other language alongside French. And the finding here was that the scores on the different tests were clearly related to the amount of input that children heard on a daily basis. So children who heard French less than 40% of the time scored significantly lower than children whose daily exposure was almost always in French. Children who heard more French than English had comparable scores with the children whose daily exposure was almost only in French. That was for vocabulary. For word structure, there were more differences between the bilingual children, depending on how much French they heard. There was also a similar pattern for English, so these children were also tested using the same tests in English, and their two high levels of exposure were related to higher scores. So the third finding in this study is that the amount of input children hear remains important as bilingual children get older. Even for children who have had contact with both the languages from birth.
Sharon Unsworth: What can you learn from this study as a parent? An early start in the school language is not necessary to be able to score as well as other bilingual children as long as you get enough input in the long run. So if at home you speak a language that other than the one used at school and that’s the only language in your house, it’s okay to concentrate on this in the early years. In most cases, with a firm basis in the heritage language, children should be able to pick up the school language. If, however, you live in a country where support for bilingual children isn’t great, you might want to look for sources of input in that language before your child reaches school age so that he or she at least has some basics once they start. But in principle, an early start is not necessary to be able to score as well as other bilingual children. An early start is also not a guarantee that a bilingual child will score as well as monolingual peers. At least not for the aspects of language tested in the study I just told you about. So it’s important to make sure your child gets as much input as possible in both languages. You have to try and find the right balance there. It’s important to note here that the study I told you about mainly dealt with aspects of language for which you can expect that the amount of language input is going to play an important role. Whether this is also the case to more subtle aspects of language remains unclear. There’s other research, including research that I’ve done myself, that shows that both early and late bilinguals can do just as well as each other and as well as monolinguals.
Sharon Unsworth: What can you learn from this study as a teacher or speech language therapist? Well, it’s important to take into account children’s language background, not only the fact that they’re bilingual, but try and find out more about how much contact they’ve had with the school language. This kind of information is necessary in order to better assess whether bilingual children are performing at an appropriate level or whether they need support. For this, you can use the new tool that we’ve designed in the Q-BEx project. This is a questionnaire that parents fill in online or with you. You can create a very detailed version or a much less detailed version. And the output from this tool provides you with all kinds of information about children’s experience with the school language and the home language, including a measure of the amount of exposure as used in the Canadian study I just told you about. You’ll find a link to the Q-BEx project, as well as all the details about the study by Elin Thordardottir in the show notes. And there there’s also a link to the paper itself, which is available free online. So if you’re interested, you can go and take a look yourself.
Kletshead of the Week
Rehoboth: My name is Rehoboth. I come from South Africa. I am 13 years old and I speak English, Xitsonga and Afrikaans.
Sharon Unsworth: English, Xitsonga and Afrikaans. So three languages. So tell me, who do you speak English with?
Rehoboth: Mainly my friends and family.
Sharon Unsworth: And Afrikaans?
Rehoboth: Some of my friends.
Sharon Unsworth: Some of your friends. And did you learn it from your friends or did you learn it at school?
Rehoboth: I kind of learned from both.
Sharon Unsworth: Well, so what languages do you use at school?
Rehoboth: At school, I mainly use English, but also use Afrikaans sometimes.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And are there lessons in English and Afrikaans?
Rehoboth: Oh, yes, they are.
Sharon Unsworth: And the other language. Tell me again what it is.
Sharon Unsworth: Xitsonga. So tell me about that. Do you speak that at home?
Rehoboth: Yes, I speak it at home and home only, unless some of my friends want to know certain words in Xitsonga. But regardless of that, I only speak Xitsonga to my family.
Sharon Unsworth: So I know nothing about that language. So is it a language that’s spoken by many people in South Africa?
Rehoboth: Not really. It’s not spoken by too many people.
Sharon Unsworth: No. So if you got.. You just told me that your brother is cooking in the background. So I know you have you have one brother. Do you have any other brothers or sisters?
Rehoboth: I have other brothers. But they don’t stay with me.
Sharon Unsworth: They don’t stay with you. What language do you speak with your brother?
Rehoboth: Oh, I speak English with my other brothers. Yeah.
Sharon Unsworth: And the one, the one who’s cooking?
Rehoboth: I speak both English and Xitsonga to him.
Sharon Unsworth: When do you decide which language you speak or do you not decide, it just happens?
Rehoboth: It just comes up randomly. But I don’t really decide what language I feel like speaking to. Like speaking with him. It just comes out naturally.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. What’s he cooking? I’m curious.
Rehoboth: I’m pretty sure he’s making eggs.
Sharon Unsworth: Mmm fried?
Rehoboth: Yeah, I think it’s fried.
Sharon Unsworth: Sounds good. What’s the best thing about being bilingual or trilingual?
Rehoboth: It’s easy to get around with some people, because let’s say that I am with people who don’t speak Xitsonga or English. I can use a different language like Afrikaans to communicate with them. So being bilingual, trilingual, it kind of helps you get around more.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So I, I don’t know very much about South Africa, but I’ve heard it’s a very multilingual place. So are most of your friends multilingual?
Rehoboth: Most of them are bilingual, most of them.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Which language do you prefer to speak?
Rehoboth: I prefer English.
Sharon Unsworth: Why?
Rehoboth: It’s easier than Afrikaans and Xitsonga. That’s why.
Sharon Unsworth: Why? Why is it easier?
Rehoboth: I don’t know. I think it’s just because let’s say when I’m playing games, people that speak English, when you watch TV, people that speaking English. And just in general English is one of the most spoken languages throughout the globe. So I think maybe that’s why I prefer it more.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So you like gaming then?
Rehoboth: Yeah, I love gaming.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. What’s your favourite game?
Rehoboth: I’m not sure. I’m kind of biased. It’s between Call of Duty, Warzone and Fortnite.
Sharon Unsworth: Okay. And do you play, like with friends on it or do you play with people across the world on it?
Rehoboth: I play with friends and people across the world.
Sharon Unsworth: Uhu and that’s when you speak English, I guess?
Sharon Unsworth: So now you’re 13, so when you’re older, which languages do you think you’ll speak?
Rehoboth: I feel like I mainly be speaking English. Just English. I don’t see myself speaking in the other languages in the future besides English.
Sharon Unsworth: And what about Xitsonga then? What are you going to speak to your mom?
Rehoboth: I’m not sure, because when it comes to my mom, I speak to her with basically any language. But like, same thing goes to my, like, my mom and brother. Like, when I speak to them, I don’t think what language I use. As long as I can get the words out.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So I live in the Netherlands, so I can speak Dutch. And I know Dutch is a little bit like Afrikaans.
Rehoboth: They’re both similar.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So let’s start with Afrikaans. Have you got a favourite word in Afrikaans?
Rehoboth: I mean, I’m going to be honest with you. A couple months back, I used to love swearing in Afrikaans.
Sharon Unsworth: I’m not sure we could have swearing.
Rehoboth: Yeah, I used to love doing that.
Sharon Unsworth: And why, why?
Rehoboth: Yeah, I was being badly influenced at the time.
Sharon Unsworth: Uh huh. Does it feel different if you swear in a different language?
Rehoboth: Yeah, definitely.
Sharon Unsworth: In what way, then?
Rehoboth: Swearing in Afrikaans and swearing in English. You can be saying the same words, but Afrikaans just sounds a lot more aggressive than English swearing.
Sharon Unsworth: Okay, well, maybe have you got something like a word, that’s something typically Afrikaans?
Rehoboth: Well, that’s typically Afrikaans. Hoe gaan dit.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Is that hoe gaat het? How are you?
Rehoboth: You? No, that’s in Dutch. Hoe gaan dit, Afrikaans means like, how’s it going?
Sharon Unsworth: Hoe gaan dit.
Sharon Unsworth: Sounds a bit like Dutch. And what about Xitsonga then? Can you teach me something in Xitsonga?
Rehoboth: I feel like Kunjhani.
Sharon Unsworth: Gunjan?
Rehoboth: No, kunjhani.
Sharon Unsworth: Kunjhani.
Rehoboth: But you need to use more like an accent to it. Kunjhani.
Sharon Unsworth: Kunjha.
Rehoboth: No, you say Kunjhan. Kunjhani.
Sharon Unsworth: Kunjhani.
Rehoboth: Yeah, like that.
Sharon Unsworth: Okay, I got it in the end. What does it mean?
Rehoboth: How are you?
Sharon Unsworth: Ah so that’s the same as hoe gaan dit?
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Kunjhani. So do you read many books?
Rehoboth: I used to read books, but right now the book that I’m focusing on mainly is my Bible. Yeah, I finished reading most of my other books.
Sharon Unsworth: So what language is the Bible in?
Rehoboth: The Bible is in English.
Sharon Unsworth: And can you read in Afrikaans as well then?
Rehoboth: My reading in Afrikaans isn’t too good. More in English.
Sharon Unsworth: Aha. Tell me about school. Are there classes all in English or Afrikaans or how does that work?
Rehoboth: So in school we don’t have like different classes or periods for other subjects, but we do that like you go in there and you learn all different subjects in one sitting. So it’s not like I, let’s say, have a math class and go to a completely other teacher to do, let’s say, my history and all that. We have one teacher who teaches all the subjects to us, and then when it comes to English and Afrikaans, there are two separate subjects.
Sharon Unsworth: Uh huh. And when you do like history and all those things, like they’re all together, but you still do them. Do you do those in English or in Afrikaans?
Rehoboth: I do them in English.
Sharon Unsworth: So you can choose?
Rehoboth: Yes, you can choose because you have two different types of books. You get the books where you can have English as your home language and the ones where you can have Afrikaans as your home language. The only main difference between those two is that if I’m doing English home language, my Afrikaans is going to be easier than the kids who are doing Afrikaans as their home language. But other than that, in other books it’s just a direct translation.
Sharon Unsworth: Aha. Are you then in the same class as the kids who have Afrikaans as the home language?
Rehoboth: Yeah. All in the same class.
Sharon Unsworth: Wow. That’s cool. Because here in the Netherlands, everybody just has Dutch at school, right? It doesn’t matter what language you speak at home. What do you think about that?
Rehoboth: I feel like that’s a bit unfair.
Sharon Unsworth: Why?
Rehoboth: Because personally, I struggle with learning Afrikaans. Yeah. So I can only imagine how hard Dutch would be. So knowing the fact that you don’t really have a choice to choose if you want to have Dutch as your home language or additional language seems a little bit unfair towards me.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, I agree. I think you’re absolutely right. So tell me, do you dream at night?
Sharon Unsworth: What language do you dream?
Rehoboth: Oh, I dream in English.
Sharon Unsworth: How do- How do you know?
Rehoboth: From the dreams that I can currently remember, if I was to speak in those dreams, I would only speak in English. I know because I wouldn’t be in South Africa. I’d be in, I’d be overseas in my dreams. So if I speak a different language, nobody would understand me.
Sharon Unsworth: Aha. So you dream about going somewhere else?
Rehoboth: Yes, many times.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Have you been, have you been in many different places?
Rehoboth: I can’t say many different places. But I’ve definitely been to different places.
Sharon Unsworth: Have you ever been out of South Africa?
Rehoboth: Yes, I have. I once went to Canada, I think it was in 2019 for the December holidays. I went to Canada in 2019.
Sharon Unsworth: What was that like?
Rehoboth: It was unbelievable because here in South Africa, in South Africa, we don’t really have things like snow and it’s quite hot here. So adjusting from like here to Canada, it was so different and unique. And that’s what I loved about it because again, it was my first time seeing snow. I really, really enjoyed that along with the fact that the temperature was so different. So I enjoyed the experience a lot.
Sharon Unsworth: Sounds cool. I was in Canada in 2019 too, in the summer. It’s a great place, isn’t it?
Rehoboth: Yeah it is.
Sharon Unsworth: Have you got pets?
Sharon Unsworth: If you had one, though, what language would you speak to them?
Rehoboth: English for sure. Yeah. Yeah.
Sharon Unsworth: So English is definitely your preferred language, isn’t it?
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And are there any bad things about being multilingual?
Rehoboth: I mean, I have some of my friends at school come to me, and then they start asking me random words in my language. It can get irritating sometimes, but it’s not too big of a problem.
Sharon Unsworth: No. Do you ever find yourself looking for the right word or?
Rehoboth: Yeah. Mainly Afrikaans.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Some people think that bilingual or multilingual children are smarter than children who can only speak one language. What do you think?
Rehoboth: I mean, I do better than most of my class at school. So maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s not. Because there is some kids in my class who are also trilingual, but they’re doing bad. Like really, really bad. I’m not sure I feel like it’s half and half when it comes to.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Does it help you in any way being multilingual?
Rehoboth: Not really. Because again, like when I first started doing like school, what happened is not when I first started. I think in fifth grade. Or seventh? No, last year.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah.
Rehoboth: Last year at school. What happened is I started doing I started to do Afrikaans again and because I already knew the language and how to speak it wasn’t too big of a problem anymore.
Sharon Unsworth: So it helped.
Rehoboth: Yeah it helped a lot.
Sharon Unsworth: Okay. And so it’s now Friday afternoon. Are you done with school for the week?
Rehoboth: I’m done with school for the entire year.
Sharon Unsworth: You’re done with school. Oh, you’ve got summer holidays, right?
Sharon Unsworth: Aha. So what are you going to do all day then?
Rehoboth: I feel like I’m just going to have fun and play games with my friends.
Sharon Unsworth: Cool. Well, you have fun and play games with your friends. Thank you very much for talking to me.
Sharon Unsworth: All right. You’re welcome.
Sharon Unsworth: It’s nice to hear all about your languages, so tell me, how do I say thank you in Xitsonga?
Rehoboth: Thank you. Nkhensa.
Sharon Unsworth: Nkhensa. Is that kind of right?
Rehoboth: Yeah, it’s kind of right
Sharon Unsworth: Kind of right.
Rehoboth: That’s good.
Sharon Unsworth: And goodbye.
Rehoboth: Goodbye. Xewani.
Sharon Unsworth: Xewani. Okay. Nkhensa Reho, Xewani. Oh, if only we had the video on the podcast. I tried my best, anyway, thank you.
Rehoboth: You did good.
Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Okay. Bye. Bye.
Sharon Unsworth: Thanks to Rehoboth for taking part and his mom for helping arrange our chat. That’s it for this episode of Kletsheads, where we learned that an early start in the school language is not necessary to be able to score as well as other bilingual children. As long as you get enough input in the long run. At the same time, an early start is also not a guarantee that a bilingual child will score as well as monolingual peers, at least when it comes to vocabulary and certain aspects of grammar. Whether we should always be comparing bilingual children to monolingual children is an interesting question in and of itself, but one that will leave for another time. We’ll be back in two weeks with a new episode where I talk to Professor Elise de Bree about learning to read in two languages. And I share with you our third Kletsheads Quick and Easy. Until then.
Sharon Unsworth: If you want to know more about Kletsheads, go to our website at kletsheadspodcast.org. That’s where you’ll also find more information about this episode. If you want to make sure you don’t miss an episode, subscribe to Kletsheads using your favourite podcast app. If you know someone else who might enjoy the podcast, then I’d really appreciate it if you would share it with them. You can do this via the website or in your podcast app. And if you’re on social media, we’d love it if you followed us. Our handle is @kletsheads. Thanks for listening. And until the next time. Or as we say in Dutch: tot de volgende keer!
This transcript was generated using amberscript.com and was checked by Aniek Ebbinge.