Bilingual children sometimes say things that their monolingual peers would never say. This is the same for adults, too. They don’t always know certain words in each of their two (or more) languages. And in the many cases when bilingual children do know the word in question, they can’t always think of it straightaway. Again, this also holds for adults. I speak from experience as someone who sometimes has to use google translate from Dutch to English to remember what a word is in my native language. As a parent, teacher or speech language therapist, you may wonder whether all of this is normal. The answer is “yes”. Being creative with words, not always finding the right one, and sometimes saying things in ways monolinguals would never do is quite normal. In this episode research Elly Koutamanis explains why this is the case, how we know this exactly, and what this tells us about how the bilingual mind deals with words from two languages.
We talked about two different kinds words: cognates and false friends. Cognates are words which look or sound similar and mean the same thing. For example, cat in English looks and sounds like kat in Dutch, and they both refer to the same four-legged furry creature that miaouws. False friends also look and sound similar but they mean something different. For example, the German word schlimm ‘bad’ sounds and looks like the Dutch word slim, which means something quite different: ‘clever’. Research shows that the bilinguals respond differently to these two kinds of words, both compared with each other and compared with words that are completely unrelated across languages. Listen to the podcast to find out how exactly! What this research shows is that bilignuals are unable to switch off their languages and this means that how they use or understand one language is often influenced by the other. It also shows that a bilingual’s two languages live together in the same ‘bin’ rather than in two separate ‘bins’, one for each language.
In this episode, I also share the last Kletsheads Quick and Easy for this season, a concrete tip that you can immediately and easily use to make a success of multilingualism in your family, classroom or practice. This episode’s tip is to talk to your child about their bilingualism! In the episode I mention Eowyn Crisfield’s book, Bilingual Families: A Practical Language Planning Guide, and the animations, Bilingualism in the picture. These are three short films about bilingualism and what it means to grow up bilingual. They are available in English – and if you go to the Dutch website – in Dutch, Polish, Turkish and Arabic.
Elly Koutamanis is a PhD student at the Centre for Language Studies at Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Her research is on exactly the same topic as this episode: how does the bilingual child’s mind handle words from two languages. She’s a member of the 2in1 project, which investigates how bilingual children’s languages influence each other more generally. We heard from another project member, Chantal van Dijk, in an earlier episode on this topic last season. You can read more in this piece by Elly, Chantal and colleagues on the MPI TalkLing blog.