00:00:15 – 00:03:42
Sharon: 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. Welcome to the third season of Kletsheads. When I started this English language edition of the podcast in the middle of the pandemic in 2020, I honestly didn’t expect that three years later we’d still be going. This is largely thanks to you. Thank you for your enthusiastic responses, for sharing the podcast with others and, of course, for listening. In this episode we’re talking about individual differences. Some bilingual children end up being more bilingual than others. Researcher Johanne Paradis tells us why we’re here from our first head of the week, Reyhan, our first guest from India. And I share my first Kletsheads Quick and Easy of the season. A concrete tip you can put into practice straight away to make the most of the bilingualism in your family, class or clinic. Keep listening to find out more. Some children growing up with more than one language end up being pretty good in all of them, whereas for others there’s a clear imbalance between their languages, usually in favour of the one that they use at school and the one that’s used in the wider community. Some children actively use both languages, but many do not. And in much the same way as we see for learning to walk or the age at which you lose your first tooth. We also see that some children are quicker to pick up the two languages than others. Sometimes there are seemingly obvious explanations for all this variation between children. For example, there’s only one parent who speaks the language in question, and for whatever reason, he or she doesn’t spend much time with the child. At other times, though, children growing up in apparently similar circumstances have very different outcomes when it comes to how well or how much they use their two or more languages. The most obvious example of when this happens is when we see large differences between brothers and sisters. What exactly causes these differences? Why do some bilingual children end up being more bilingual than others? And as a parent or professional, is there anything that you can do to maximize a child’s chances of becoming as bilingual as possible? To answer these questions, I’m joined by Johanne Paradis, professor at the University of Alberta in Canada. There are a whole host of factors that can affect bilingual children’s language development, and we can categorize these in different ways. Some of these factors relate to the child’s environment, whereas others are more about the child’s own abilities. Some factors are specific to bilingual children, whereas others are relevant to all children, no matter how many languages they’re learning. In research on this topic, we often talk about these as child external and child internal factors. I started by asking Joanna if she could give us some examples.
00:03:43 – 00:05:07
Johanne: Sure. So child internal factors are what the child themselves brings to the language acquisition process. So it can be things about their different cognitive abilities, different how their memories work. Some children have better memories than others, some adults too. It can also be the age at which they start to learn a second language that can matter. And children’s different socio-emotional development can also play a role. So, for example, when children have socio-emotional difficulties, this can interfere with their ability to learn language. So that’s the sort of internal stuff and the child external stuff or all the things going on around the child in their family who’s speaking what to whom at home, what languages the siblings use with each other, the quality of the different input in each language going on around the child. And then we go to sort of broader factors. How big is the community of speakers of the child’s minority language? Does the child, as you mentioned earlier, have the opportunity to go to school in both language and develop literacy skills in both languages? And there’s also family factors such as parent education, parent fluency in each language as well.
00:05:07 – 00:05:21
Sharon: Let’s start with the internal factors. You’ve listed a few. So how do they affect bilingual children’s language learning? So if we start, say, with age of onset, so the general wisdom is younger is better, Is that true? And what does it actually mean for there to be age effects? What is that?
00:05:21 – 00:07:58
Johanne: Yeah, well, younger is better is probably true if we’re talking about if you learn a language in childhood versus if you learn it as an adult. Just about everybody knows if they start to learn a language when they’re an adult, they might end up with a foreign accent in that language, no matter how hard they try to shake it. But what we’re talking about just children. So forget about adults just among young child learners, younger is better is not always the case. So what a lot of the research shows is that among really young children, sometimes a little bit older means the child will be a faster learner of their second language. And one of the cases that we see this most strikingly is sort of when you’re talking about preschool versus school settings. So suppose parents make a deliberate choice to send their child to a preschool or daycare setting in the society language, and they speak a heritage language at home. And they make that choice because they think they’re giving their child the best possible start in the societal language. And, you know, better start before school happens. But actually what we see is that that boost that a child might get by starting to learn the societal language when they’re three, by the time they’re eight, it doesn’t matter anymore. They look about the same as the kids who started to learn it in the first grade at school or kindergarten, depending on the the society you’re in. School starts at different ages. So when we’re talking about the difference between a three year old and a five and a half year old, older is sometimes better because a five and a half year old is more cognitively mature. They also have more of their first language in place. And both of these things can promote faster learning of the second language or the societal language. And this is probably the reason why by about age eight, they catch up. And I think, you know, one of the reasons why I like to mention this is that, you know, even though parents have the best of intentions, exposing their child as young as possible to the societal language before school starts, what they’re doing is also taking away some of that very crucial period for their child to learn the heritage language, because the heritage language is not really spoken outside the home and might not be spoken at school. So there’s certainly a trade off there between whether you really want to support the societal language or whether you want to keep the heritage language going in choices. When one has a choice about preschool programming.
00:07:59 – 00:08:38
Sharon: Yeah, I was going to say, I think, you know, in some circumstances there is no choice, right? If, you know, if one parent speaks one language, the heritage language. So they’re not the language that’s spoken in the community and the other does speak the community language. So I guess in English at least in the part of Canada where you are Dutch where I am. But yeah, like you said, there’s a trade off to be had there. Right. And so, you mentioned actually what those age effects might be, right? That the knowledge of another language might actually help you in learning the second language and that having more developed cognitive skills, what kind of things would we be thinking of there then in terms of older children being more cognitively developed?
00:08:38 – 00:09:10
Johanne: Well, they would have stronger memory skills, short term memory, being able to pick up pieces of the language input more quickly and more efficiently and more accurately. They’ll also have better reasoning skills, pattern detection, analogical reasoning, so they can sort of pick out the patterns and learn the grammar a little bit faster than younger children. Their attention systems are more developed so they can have longer attention span, which also helps in language learning.
00:09:10 – 00:09:46
Sharon: Yeah, one factor that we’ve not mentioned yet that’s a child internal factor is the idea of language aptitude. In Dutch we have a really great name for this, a language bump. So if people say you’re good at learning languages, then you’ve got a language bump. So anyway, there you go. But in research, we don’t call it a language bump. We call it language aptitude. What do we mean by that? Can you maybe explain a bit about that and how it affects children’s language learning?
00:09:46 – 00:11:41
Johanne: So, you know, every individual has a level of language aptitude, just like we have an IQ and we vary and you know, most people are average and language aptitude is kind of like the kinds of intelligence. This bump really is important for language learning. And basically, there’s two main things that go into language learning aptitude. One is your memory span, whether you can remember words and sentences you hear accurately and store them in memory, because then you can process them and learn them. And we all vary in our ability to do that. A simple way to test this is give somebody your phone number with the country code and everything really fast and see if they can repeat it accurately. If they can, they probably have a really good short term memory. The other aspect of language aptitude that plays a big role is what we call analogical reasoning or pattern detection. So this is being able to see patterns that are occurring and that can be in shapes, it can be in things you hear, music, anything. So a simple example would be if you showed a young child, a bunch of blocks in a row, a triangle, a circle and a square, and then you put a triangle, a circle and a square again, maybe different colors. And then you put a triangle in a circle and you stop there and you say, okay, what’s the next one that should be there? And if the child has processed the pattern, they go ‘Oh, well, it’s got to be a square’. Children who are good at that, which are actually really good at that, better than average, they’re probably better than average language learners. Because when we think about it, language is full of patterns, right? Grammar is grammar patterns. So kids who have superior memories, superior pattern detection or analogical reasoning tend to be stronger at language learning in both their first language and their second language.
00:11:42 – 00:12:33
Sharon: Many children become bilingual after moving from one country to another. This move might be out of choice or out of need. In some cases, children may have fled a conflict or another dangerous situation, and as a result, their well-being may be at risk. For example, they may have been exposed to violence. They may have stayed in refugee camps for long periods of time or they may have been separated from their family. These are all factors which can affect children’s well-being. If you’re interested in finding out more about well-being in bilingual families more generally, listen to episode 3 in the last season of Kletsheads. I asked Joanna to what extent the differences we see in children’s well-being also affect their language development and so the likelihood that they will become bilingual.
00:12:34 – 00:14:43
Johanne: We know increasingly more about it by studying mostly refugee children, especially refugee children who fled with their families from war and violence. So children who have socio-emotional difficulties, we’re talking about difficulties in mood and affect. So there can be anger, aggression, there can be depression, feelings of loneliness and so on. And when these feelings can get really intense, when there’s lots of problems with well-being, this can interrupt or disrupt a lot of the cognitive mechanisms and cognitive functioning that we use for learning, and not just learning languages, all kinds of learning. So a lot of socio-well-being difficulties. If a child is experiencing a lot of them, we often see that this can interfere with their ability to pay attention to one thing and to ignore distractions. It can influence their ability to remember things. It can influence their ability to generally do well at school. That’s been well documented. And more recently we found that it can interfere with their ability to acquire language. Sometimes these difficulties manifest themselves in external behaviors like aggression, but sometimes children internalize it and they’re just sort of sad, lonely and feeling separated and have low self-esteem. But it’s not as easy to figure out what’s going on. Sometimes children who have extreme problems with this will have exaggerated and heightened distractions to things that aren’t threatening, but they feel they’re threatening, such as they might feel another child’s behavior is threatening to them when it’s not. Or even just a loud noise or a helicopter flying outside the window of a classroom can make a child, you know, jump and go under their desk. And so we see these things happening a lot with refugee children from very difficult situations. But only recently we’ve connected the social emotional well-being problems with learning a second language in particular. Definitely the more kids have these problems, the slower their learning is of the second language, right?
00:14:43 – 00:14:57
Sharon: And those problems affect some of the other factors that you mentioned, right? The memory and the detecting patterns. And then there’s a kind of trickle down effect, as it were. Is that how we should see it?
00:14:57 – 00:14:59
Johanne: Yeah, a trickle down effect.
00:14:59 – 00:15:07
Sharon: Yeah. Yeah. And so is there anything that teachers or parents can do about that or to help children?
00:15:08 – 00:15:45
Johanne: Well, certainly children who have social well-being or mental health difficulties need psychological and social support. Sometimes this needs to be given to them at the school level, because oftentimes in refugee families, this, you know, these kind of situations, the parents as well can be experiencing mental health difficulties and wellbeing difficulties. So they may not be able to provide their child with the kind of support that a child needs to improve their situation and then open things up for school learning in general and language learning in particular. Yeah.
00:15:47 – 00:16:02
Sharon: We’re going to leave our conversation with Johanne now to hear our first quick and easy of this season. That’s a concrete tip that you can put to use straight away to make a success of the bilingualism in your family, class or clinic.
Kletsheads Quick & Easy
00:16:06 – 00:17:17
Sharon: Bilingual parenting doesn’t always go as smoothly as we’d like. You or your child runs into problems at school. You get frustrated because your child only speaks the school language back to you, despite the fact that you consistently speak the heritage language with them. Or you just find it too much of a hassle. In situations like these, it can sometimes help to talk to someone else who is also raising his, her or their children bilingually. They may have concrete tips for you based on their own experience. Or perhaps all you need is a listening ear from someone who recognizes your situation. Either way, simply talking about how you feel can already help you move forward. This also applies to professionals, of course. Find a colleague with whom you can spar about the questions, challenges or frustrations you have with the bilingual children in your classroom or practice. So the Kletsheads Quick and Easy for today is to find someone to talk about the bilingualism in your family, classroom or practice. If you already know someone, send them a message or email now or give them a call and otherwise start thinking today about who you might be able to approach.
00:17:22 – 00:17:25
Sharon: Let’s switch to the external factors.
00:17:25 – 00:18:12
Sharon: So the factors that relate to children’s experiences and to the environment. Now, there we know there’s a whole load of variation right in in terms of how much children are exposed to the two languages, the type of exposure that they get, how much they actively use their two, two or more languages. If we start with what happens at home, we know that input matters. We’ve spoken about that a lot on the on the podcast in previous episodes. But does it matter to the same extent for the two languages? So the let’s call it the school language, there may be more than one, but let’s just keep it simple. You know, there’s one school language, it’s the same language as the language of the community, the main language and the heritage language. So does input matter to the same extent for the two languages?
00:18:12 – 00:20:08
Johanne: Well, interestingly enough, it doesn’t matter. Different kinds of input matter differently. So that, of course, you know, children need, you know, a certain amount of input in a language to acquire it. So if you say only have one parent who speaks, let’s say the heritage or the minority language, that’s going to be a struggle to get enough going at home versus the case where both parents speak the heritage or minority language and every family member has some fluency in it. So a child’s going to be surrounded more at home by that language than if there’s only one parent who speaks the language. So that’s sort of number one, whereas the societal language is going to or the school language is going to be carried on outside the home. So we know that the school language is eventually going to be acquired through schooling and outside the home. So focusing on trying to keep as much of the home and the heritage language is what we see. There is stronger outcomes in the heritage language when that is going on. We also see interesting differences between whether the parents use the heritage language or the school language. Sometimes for the parents, the school language is very much the second language and they’re actually not very proficient in that language through no fault of their own. They’re just, you know, migration, you know, and whatever. But they often want to try to speak as much as possible in that school language at home because they, you know, through good intentions, want to support their child in success at school. So they figure, well, if we all speak the school language at home, that’s going to help. But all the research shows that it doesn’t help at all. The child gets advanced atoll in the school language. What it does, though, unfortunately, have is the effect of making the child’s ability in the heritage language go down. So, you know, for that reason, we recommend that parents speak the language they know best in their most proficient in with their children. It’s where they’ll give their children the best input.
00:20:08 – 00:20:12
Sharon: Does it matter who’s doing the talking? Who’s providing the input?
00:20:12 – 00:21:00
Johanne: Yeah. Like we find that when siblings, particularly older siblings, talking to younger siblings, if they’re using the school language, this can actually have a beneficial effect to the younger siblings in their development of the school language. So totally the opposite of what I just described for the parents. And we think the reason for this is that older siblings are, you know, going to school. They’ve been acquiring the language for longer. They’re probably proficient enough in the second language that they’re giving good and rich input to the younger siblings, and that’s boosting the siblings, their younger siblings ability in the school language. The downside is that when siblings are speaking the school language with each other, this has been shown longer term to have negative effects for how well they speak the heritage language.
00:21:00 – 00:21:03
Sharon: Yeah. So it’s again another trade off, right?
00:21:04 – 00:21:06
Johanne: In a certain sense, you know that.
00:21:06 – 00:21:44
Sharon: We’ve been talking quite a bit there about really the amount of input and we know the quality of the input also matters. You know, you mentioned about whether not speaking a language you’re not very proficient in. Parents are often told they need to provide a rich language environment. Again, something that we’ve spoken about on the podcast already quite a few times, but maybe we can again for those who’ve not heard previous episodes where we’ve spoken about this. Maybe you can just tell us a bit more what we mean by that exactly, especially in the research context. When we say oh, we see that richness of input matters, what does that mean? And again, do we see the same effects across the two languages?
00:21:46 – 00:23:19
Johanne: So I think, you know, back in the old days, we would ask parents, how much does your child watch TV? Like turn it on and watch it live versus how much do they read a physical book? And nowadays a lot of children are doing neither of those things, and yet they’re still experiencing rich language in their input because nowadays there’s media, social media, there’s often video and text like literacy combined et cetera, et cetera. So the most prototypical example, however, of a rich language environment is still book reading, whether it’s online or a physical book. Activities between parents and young children or when children get older if they’re doing this themselves. So engagement in literacy is often giving children the richest possible input. So we’re talking about quality over quantity. So it’s giving them more advanced vocabulary, it’s giving them more advanced grammar and stuff that you just wouldn’t experience so much in everyday conversation. And I think that right now my read of the research is that it’s not quantity of input always matters. You can’t acquire a language without getting exposure to it, but we’re seeing that quality matters a lot more than we ever thought it did before. And I think that there are many different types of richness that we’re only beginning to start to tap into beyond, say, book looking activities.
00:23:19 – 00:23:40
Sharon: Yeah. And do you think then quality can sometimes trump quantity, right? If you know, you only get a little bit of input in one language, but it’s really, really good input because I can imagine there are plenty of parents listening thinking ‘Oh, well, maybe if we make it really, really rich, that will help’. Even though I know I can’t provide more than this.
00:23:40 – 00:26:14
Johanne: Well, you know, it’s impossible to completely separate quality and quantity, number one. So, like, even in the research, when we ask about richness of the environment, we ask, how often do you read books? How frequently does your child listen to programs in this, you know, this language X or whatever. So frequency quantities, always sneaking in there. So and a very rich language experience like, say, parents want to, you know, have their child, you know, spend time with the grandparents, but the grandparents live far away. So maybe once a month the child will spend an afternoon at the grandparents. I don’t think that that, you know, activity or the richness of the, you know, grandparents playing with the child, if it’s once a month, is going to impart that language to the child. However rich, the activity will be, say the grandparents are the only source of that language. Yeah. So it’s frequency and quality go hand in hand. So it’s keeping up as much quality as possible. You know, keeping in mind that quantity is obviously the bottom line here. But I do think that, you know, everyday language is going on all the time, and especially regulatory language like get your con, get your boots on, supper’s ready. And especially when we’re talking about the heritage or minority language, it’s so important to keep in mind that, you know, rich language is going to go on at school in the school language, but you’re responsible at home and what you do outside the home, outside of school for getting rich experiences for your child in the heritage language. And, you know, this takes effort. It doesn’t just come for free. You have to not, you know, some days you’re tired and it’s pure regulatory language with your children. But try to do as much of the, you know, richer stuff at home that you can and even things like extracurricular activities. The research I’ve done here in Canada, if children do extracurricular activities, sports activities, dance activities and cultural activities in the heritage language that boosts their skills because they’re using it outside the home with new and different people, they’re getting a variety of interlocutors and interaction in that language through those activities. And we even find that language is language of friendship. So if children know other children who speak the same heritage language and they choose to use that language with each other, that especially when they’re reaching the teenage years, this can make it or break it for how well they speak the heritage language.
00:26:14 – 00:27:16
Sharon: Yeah, yeah. So finding other people apart from mom or dad or whoever speaks the language, contact with the heritage language outside of the home. One thing that we’ve not mentioned yet is, well, I don’t know what you call in Canada, but I know in the UK it’s called complementary schools. In the Netherlands, we call it heritage language schools. So learning essentially those literacy skills. So learning to read and write in the heritage language usually in a weekend and maybe not the best time for favorite time for children to be going to school. But we know that some children have to do it because their parents really want them to do it. And some children already know how to read and write, of course, in the heritage language because they attended school before they arrived in whatever country they now now live in. What do we know from research about how knowing to read and write, just knowing to be being able to do it, how much that affects the heritage language proficiency?
00:27:16 – 00:29:16
Johanne: It helps a lot. But I hesitate to say this because some really have no access to getting literacy training for their children. So you don’t want them to feel bad. We have heritage language classes, that’s what we call them in Canada, and they’re often on the weekend. And many children complain and grump and groan. And then when they’re older, they’re really glad that their parents sent them because they can read and they do speak their language better because it’s just it’s extra input, it’s interaction, it’s meaningful, it’s, you know, you get advanced vocabulary and grammar. Although the quality of the instruction in these programs can vary widely. So that’s something to keep in mind, But it’s also some languages are just harder. Like if your child is, you know, you’re Mandarin Chinese speaking and you want your child to have literacy, it’s a lot harder to teach literacy in Mandarin. It’s a much more complex system than if, say, your child, you know, you want French and English as two languages. Like it’s, you know, you have the same alphabet. And there’s a lot of words that are basically the same and and so on. So some of the sound to letter correspondences are easier. So for some parents, it’s more of an uphill battle to give their child literacy than it is for others. The Heritage language classes certainly help, although most of the research shows the absolute best, if you want to maximize outcomes if this is available to you, is a bilingual language program where they’re actually learning school content. As well as the literacy skills because you’re getting a two for one. You’re getting this really advanced language content and you’re getting literacy skills together. But a lot of the studies that we know from when kids grow up and they’re adults and, you know, you figure out how good their heritage language is at that point. Often one of the most key predictive factors about whether their language is really strong once they’re adults is whether they can read and write in that language.
Kletshead of the week
00:29:26 – 00:29:41
Sharon: Time now for our Kletshead of the week. This episode our kletshead is interviewed by Wieke Vink. Originally from the Netherlands, Wieke now lives in London with her own trilingual family. And here she is in conversation with…
00:29:41 – 00:29:49
Reyhan: Hi, I’m Reyhan. I’m from India. I recently moved to London. I’m 22 years old and I speak English and Malayalam.
00:29:49 – 00:30:06
Wieke: And so you speak English and Malayalam. And that is a language from the southern tip of India, the Southwest in the Kerala state and surrounding areas. And it’s one of the 22 scheduled languages of India. Can you tell me a little bit more about this language?
00:30:06 – 00:30:27
Reyhan: So I think like a fun fact that I can think of is that it’s like one of the only languages if you’re writing it in English, the word Malayalam, it’s a palindrome, which means that you can read it from both the sides is the same spelling and more facts to know about it is that it’s borrowed from a few other languages, like Portuguese, Sanskrit and Tamil.
00:30:27 – 00:30:31
Wieke: Can you tell me a bit about the different languages that you speak and when you started speaking them?
00:30:31 – 00:31:17
Reyhan: Okay, so Malayalam is my mother tongue, so it is spoken in my household. So it’s not an option. Like I naturally learned the language and it came very easily. Uh, unlike English, which I had to like put more effort and had to be formally trained. So I started learning English when I started going to school, like with the alphabet, with the writing, the grammar, which used to be such a nightmare while I was growing up. But I think when I crossed a certain stage it became more easy. It came naturally to me and I started liking English a lot more. Like I started watching movies, like started reading few books. And maybe that’s why I kind of like decided to do my undergrad in English and communications.
00:31:17 – 00:31:21
Wieke: That makes sense. And do you speak different languages with different people now?
00:31:22 – 00:31:59
Reyhan: Yeah. So Malayalam mostly in my household with my family, relatives and all that stuff. But, of course, coming to UK, everywhere I speak in English and with my friends back even in Kerala, we actually speak in English only because I have my friends like from other states as well. So they speak different languages. And even though they know Malayalam because they also grew up in Kerala, for some reason we chose to speak in English because we met in an English medium school and it’s very strict to only speak in English at school, and we stuck to it and that’s what we kind of feel more comfortable in.
00:32:00 – 00:32:18
Wieke: That makes sense. And so your shared language is English with people from different states who also speak or understand Malayalam. But that English language is a comfortable place for all of you to meet. So you speak lots of different languages. You were speaking about Malayalam and English, then Hindi, Arabic.
00:32:18 – 00:32:57
Reyhan: I can’t speak Arabic, I just started getting the hang of Arabic. Like I started watching the Arabic cartoons and stuff. But then when I moved back to India, I completely forgot all the letters and numbers. And Hindi I can speak in a broken way. But I completely understand Hindi. So all of my friends in the UK, mainly they are from north of India, so they speak in Hindi, so they mix Hindi and English a lot of the times. Or if there is some other people standing there who doesn’t know Hindi and they want to talk about them, they would choose to speak in Hindi. So I can completely understand.
00:32:58 – 00:33:06
Wieke: So you can understand when your friends here in the UK mix Hindi and English and then would you speak mostly in English or would you also mix some Hindi in?
00:33:06 – 00:33:20
Reyhan: I mostly speak in English. Like if they if they are saying something in Hindi, I’ll reply back in English and I might as a joke would say some things in Hindi because they find it funny because of the accent is very different when I try to say it in Hindi.
00:33:20 – 00:33:26
Wieke: How important is it for you to be able to speak your different languages, particularly Malayalam and English?
00:33:26 – 00:34:01
Reyhan: For me personally, I want to make sure that I know English well because that’s one common language. It’s so important. Wherever you go, I think you will be able to survive if you know English. So in that sense, and also for my interest for it. So it was very important for me to like keep on like developing my skills and develop the language. I still have like so much more room to develop English, like knowing more vocabulary, have better speaking skills. Um, so in that sense I don’t know, I honestly just don’t have much attachment to Malayalam.
00:34:01 – 00:34:04
Wieke: That is partly because you moved quite, quite early on.
00:34:04 – 00:34:41
Reyhan: Yeah, I moved quite a few times, so I did not end up learning the language and I had a lot of other languages I had to learn at school, so it was never a priority. And then I think when I reached my ninth grade, uh, in my summer vacation, I was kind of forced to learn how to read and write in Malayalam. So because it was so important for my dad that I learn the language. So I learned the few letters of it. And then when the vacation got over, I didn’t have like, I didn’t have like a situation where I had to write or read because I’m basically reading in English or if I’m speaking also, it will be in English. So I just forgot.
00:34:42 – 00:34:52
Wieke: That makes sense. So for you, that is a language that you listen to and that you speak, but that you can’t actively write in.
00:34:52 – 00:35:25
Reyhan: Yeah. I could speak in Malayalam but then, like reading and writing, all is happening in English, so there is never a need. So if I’m at school, I need to know English because we have to study. Everything is happening in English. If I’m watching movies or the music I listen to, it’s all in English. So you are kind of like forced to know English, actually. But that’s not the case in Malayalam. So if you’re not using it, then you just start forgetting it slowly. So I forgot all the letters, what I had learnt for that one month.
00:35:25 – 00:35:28
Wieke: And do you ever talk with your friends about being bilingual?
00:35:28 – 00:36:11
Reyhan: Not necessarily. But then I always used to think how it is like for the people. So like if the mothers and the dad are speaking to other languages, their native language would be a mix of both. So how do they segregate them while speaking? Like, how do they know this? And this is like two different languages. In my case, I started learning English a little more later on and it was really hard at that time too, so I was more comfortable speaking in Malayalam. So I know that separation between it. These two are different languages. That’s something which I recently thought, if they are acquiring both, like how do kids know the difference? Like how do they separate when they speak the two different languages?
00:36:11 – 00:36:22
Wieke: Yeah, that’s a really good question. And in your case, you have your family language and then the language that you learned at school and actually you learned quite a lot of languages at school as well. In which languages do you dream?
00:36:23 – 00:36:40
Reyhan: I think I dream in both English and Malayalam. So if like it’s a situation that is happening at home, then it’s in Malayalam, but if it’s like with my friends or the class, if the situations are different, then it would be in English.
00:36:40 – 00:36:53
Wieke: And you were already saying, if you’re with friends here in the UK, you might like to make jokes by using some Hindi. And when you’re, when you’re back home, what languages do you like to make jokes in?
00:36:53 – 00:37:17
Johanne: So I like to make jokes both in English and Malayalam because the kind of jokes, when you say it in Malayalam, you can’t do that in English, the delivery is kind of different. The style is different. So just for the comical aspect of it, it is not just me, even my friends, when they have to deliver a joke, they might be saying it in Malayalam. It depends on the joke and the situation.
00:37:17 – 00:37:24
Wieke: And imagine if you have your own children at some point when you’re older, what language would you like to speak to them, or languages perhaps?
00:37:25 – 00:37:59
Reyhan: So personally, like if at all I want to have kids, I would be adopting them. So I feel like and I’ll be teaching them English. And the other language would depend on where we are living. And I feel like what the school is offering. It’d be nice if they could learn, if they’re interested to learn French or Spanish, but then much later on I feel like I would let them choose. But I think it’s very important for me that they know English, though, because, like I said, it’s connecting you and wherever you go, it helps you survive in the world.
00:38:00 – 00:38:06
Wieke: And is there a skill you would still like to learn in any of your languages? In Malyalam?
00:38:06 – 00:38:34
Reyhan: Honestly, I did not enjoy, like I said, for one month I spent time learning Malayalam forcefully. So since that experience I did not enjoy it at all. So it kind of gave me a little trauma of like, okay, I’m not doing this ever again. So in that sense, personally I don’t feel like learning any skills in Malayalam, but then I’m very interested to like increase my vocabulary in English and a lot better, like speaking and writing skills.
00:38:34 – 00:38:38
Wieke: And what is then in your way or in your opinion, the best way to learn a language?
00:38:38 – 00:39:33
Reyhan: Okay, so the best way, which I believe is that it’s not the most practical thing. Like if I’m suggesting you to go and learn Malayalam, I would tell you to move to Kerala and live there for a year or two because that is the best way you could learn a language because you get the opportunity to speak with people in Malayalam and or like any other languages. That’s the best way. And in the more practical sense I would ask you to just go and watch movies or music. If you are a person who enjoys listening to music, then I would suggest you to listen to music in that language. Like in the case of Hindi, I think beginning few years did not… I was just hearing all the letters, but I still couldn’t understand the sentences and stuff. Like I’m learning the question and answer just for the sake of scoring. But when I started to watch cartoons in Hindi, that’s when I started to understand Hindi. What is it about.
00:39:33 – 00:39:35
Wieke: Cartoons that helped you to learn Hindi?
00:39:37 – 00:39:49
Reyhan: Okay, so it’s not just cartoons, it’s movies. But since I was a kid, I enjoyed animation a lot. Like even when I was learning like Arabic at the time, I was ready to watch anything animated.
00:39:50 – 00:40:03
Wieke: That’s wonderful. So mixing the language with something that you enjoy. And can you say what your favorite word is in Malayalam? Is there a fun word or maybe a word that sounds or looks like a word in English but actually means something else?
00:40:03 – 00:40:12
Reyhan: I was saying this to my friend recently, so you know, the word ‘mean’, being mean to someone, it actually means ‘fish’ in Malayalam.
00:40:12 – 00:40:24
Wieke: So if I ask you to give me some ‘mean’ then actually I’m asking for nourishment. That’s amazing. Thank you so much. And it was lovely speaking with you!
00:40:24 – 00:40:27
Reyhan: Thanks for inviting me. This is like a really fun opportunity.
00:40:27 – 00:41:24
Sharon: Thanks to Ryan and to Wieke for this interesting conversation. One thing that struck me in what Reyhan said about his experiences learning to read and write in Malayalam and about learning Hindi is that enjoying yourself and not feeling like you’ve been forced to do something is key. Unfortunately, that’s the first and last Kletshead of the week that Wieke was able to find an interview for us. This means that we’re now looking for new Kletsheads who would like to appear on the podcast. Do you have a bilingual child in your mind who loves a good conversation? Or do you know someone who grew up with more than one language who has an interesting story to tell? Perhaps you are that someone? If so, drop us a line and perhaps you, your child, or someone else you know will be the next Kletshead of the week. You can contact us via social media, the website or by sending us an email.
00:41:37 – 00:42:16
Sharon: So we’ve kind of spoken now about the ways in which all these different factors can affect the two languages, but mostly separately. So one might affect this language, the heritage language more than the school language or the other way around. But I think I started out by asking, you know, what makes some children more bilingual than others and bilingual, you know, in the sense that they’re proficient in both languages and can actively use both languages. To what extent is there research looking at the effect of all these different predictors on children becoming really bilingual? Their proficiency in both languages.
00:42:17 – 00:44:29
Johanne: This is like the absolutely most important question, and I wish research could give us a really clear answer. I think that some of the things that we see constantly, equally affecting both languages, like something that if a child has this in both languages, you know, they’ll be stronger and more bilingual. One of the things that we see over and over again is if they have high language aptitude, so high language aptitude is going to predict better proficiency, stronger proficiency, more bilingual ness in both languages. However, parents can’t change that. There’s nothing that parents can can do about that. So it’s kind of like useless information if we’re thinking about advice to parents because your kid’s language aptitude is your kid’s language aptitude, and that’s that. So I think from my perspective, I think that always trying to err on the side of pushing more for the heritage language or the minority language is kind of the way to go. Like, you know, don’t worry about well, first of all, it’s impossible to equally balance in a family situation with everything going on how much you speak each language necessarily, but trying to be mindful of the fact that the heritage language is the one that needs more boosting and more support and more effort and energy, if true, like competence in bilingualism and, you know, good, good proficiency in both languages is the goal for that child. The school and community societal language will often kind of just take care of itself in a situation where the heritage language is a very minority language. So just trying to do what you can to have rich quantity and quality of input, but always try to, you know, keep in mind how much is happening in the heritage language. How much are we speaking in? Are we watching shows? Are we reading books in that language? Are we going out to cultural activities in that language? Just trying to trying to make sure you do that as much as you can. Maybe the closest dance lessons for your child is in the societal language, but if you drive across town, it’s in the heritage language and maybe it’s worth the effort.
00:44:29 – 00:45:08
Sharon: Yeah, Yeah. And again, I think, you know, like you said, it depends also on your goals as a parent, right? I mean, for some parents being proficient in both languages isn’t necessarily a goal. And one other thing that I think is important to mention that we’ve also spoken about on the podcast before is making sure that there are like genuine opportunities for language use, right? You know, because children will often, for example, reply in the school language if they know that mom and dad understands that. So again, you know, yeah, looking for the other language speaker. The other speakers of that heritage language outside of the home can often help with that as well.
00:45:09 – 00:45:10
Johanne: Absolutely. Yeah.
00:45:10 – 00:46:08
Sharon: So we’re going to wrap up shortly, but I’ve got two more questions for you. And the first is really about something that you’ve done a lot of research on, namely about children with DLD, so developmental language disorder. So I think what we’ve been talking about so far is research that’s been done with what we call typically developing bilingual children. So children who are grown up without a developmental language disorder. And we have a whole episode on that. So if you’re listening and you don’t know what that is or what that how that relates to bilingual children and how you find out if a bilingual children has dld, then you can go listen to that episode, and we’ll put the link in the show notes. But the factors that we’ve spoken about today also affect language development in bilingual children with DLD in the same way as they do typically developing children?
00:46:08 – 00:48:17
Johanne: Well, you know, this is interesting because the research on individual differences or these child internal external factors and children with developmental language disorder and other communication disorders is kind of in its infancy. So what we know right now is kind of just small pieces and we hope to build on them. So basically what we see when we do studies is the child internal factors often, you know, seem to affect more strongly individual variation in kids with DLD than they do in typically developing bilinguals. So we see things like, you know, language, aptitude and age of onset and chronological age and all of these things popping up as explaining why one child with DLD might be better in that language or more bilingual than another. And the reason for this is that kids with DLD often have mild cognitive deficits and they develop some of their cognitive skills that they need to learn language more slowly, which is the reason one of the proximal reasons why they have a language disorder so often as. As they get older, they become better language learners and they’ll become more bilingual or better at the second language when they’re older than when they’re younger because it takes them longer to get there. They need much more input to get to the same place. So I guess that, you know, if you round up a bunch of kids and you look at how much input they’re getting in, say their second language and some of them have developmental language disorder and some of them are typically developing, you’ll see that how much input they’re getting is going to really affect the typically developing kids. You’re going to see high, low and medium outcomes based on high, low and medium input. Like really simple, really straightforward. With the kids, you might not see it be so straightforward. You might see that if they have stronger cognitive skills, that’s what’s going to matter more. And it’s just because the kids with dld just need more, much, much more input, input and iterations with everything to actually learn the stuff.
00:48:17 – 00:48:26
Sharon: Right. But wouldn’t you then… so I can imagine people around me listening thinking, well then wouldn’t if then input matters more, why wouldn’t you see that that has a greater effect?
00:48:27 – 00:49:12
Johanne: It’s because we’re not measuring it properly in our studies. So we’re just taking kids who are say, Oh, let’s just take a bunch of five year olds. Some of them have DLD, some of them are typically developing. Okay, let’s see how much input they’re getting in each language at home. Boom. We see this matters for the TD kids because, you know, just from everything we’ve been talking about here, the typically developing kids, but the DLD kids, it doesn’t seem to matter why. It’s because they need more of it for it to matter. You can’t just take one snapshot at one time. You have to look at them over time for a longer period of time to see where differences in how much input they’re getting are going to play out in the language skills. We’re not doing the research right to get the answers we need is basically my take on it at this point.
00:49:12 – 00:50:41
Sharon: Yeah. And well, actually, that’s a perfect segue into my last question. Because, you know, one of the goals of the podcast is to make research findings about bilingual children accessible to parents and professionals, so we’re often mostly focusing on, you know, what are the things that we know, what have we got evidence for, as we have done in our conversation today? But of course, like you’ve just mentioned, there are many things that we don’t know or we don’t know enough about to be able to say something very concrete. So you’ve mentioned just one of them, right? We don’t know enough about what happens long term with, for example, bilingual children with DLD and how that relates to how much input they hear. But there may be other things that we don’t know so much about that. We can’t really say anything too concrete about or that we maybe need to be a bit careful about. I think it’s really important to as, you know, language scientists that we also talk about, okay, in these things, there’s consensus, right? You know, researchers agree that this matters. There are other things where people, you know, maybe we don’t know enough right now. So there’s certain things, you know, what we’ve spoken about today, or maybe about things that we’ve not spoken about, where you think, well, you know, that’s a bit, you know, we’ll see whether we’re still saying that in five, ten years? Or these things we, you know, we still really need to find out about?
00:50:43 – 00:52:51
Johanne: Oh, wow. So I’ll have to contain myself because, of course, there’s lots and lots of things that I think we need to work on harder and know more about. What I would like to see more of is really understanding how what happens inside people’s homes with how they encourage their children to use the heritage language. Because we all know you try the heritage language and the children reply in the school language. Everybody has experienced this. So what are the strategies that work and what are the strategies that might not work? And you know what? To be honest, there isn’t any kind of strong research base telling us. So we need to go into homes and see things, you know, does it work to just continue on with the conversation? Does it work if you flag it for the child and use encouragement to use the heritage language, you know, what works? So we need to know that because parents need to know that, and we really don’t know that. Another thing that we don’t know a lot about is how things like family attitudes toward bilingualism, are they pro bilingualism, are they bilingual just by accident through immigration? And they maybe don’t really know whether they’re pro bilingualism or not? Does this make a difference to children’s bilingual outcomes? We have no idea if families have language policies. You know, like on Saturday, we all speak only the heritage language or, you know, do these things matter at all or are parents wasting their time? And the other thing we don’t know a lot about is as kids grow older, you know, because we’re not just, I mean, I’m not personally concerned just about bilingualism. When kids are little, you want it to be a lifetime. Most parents, the goal is that children will always speak both languages, you know, as they grow older. And how much do children have ethnocultural identity or cultural preferences? Or as children grow older and they choose what what media they interact with, how does this predict their outcomes? You know, working with older kids and teenagers, we never do that. Or not never, but hardly ever.
00:52:51 – 00:53:05
Sharon: Yeah, not not as much as as we might, right. Because often much of what we do is with children who are preschool, primary school aged kids. So there’s plenty of research that’s still to be done, then?
00:53:06 – 00:53:07
00:53:07 – 00:53:14
Sharon: Yeah. Okay, good. Well, that’s maybe a good note. A good note to end on. Thanks for taking the time today.
00:53:14 – 00:53:15
Johanne: It was my pleasure.
00:53:17 – 00:53:17
Sharon: Thank you.
00:53:18 – 00:56:07
Sharon: So there are a whole host of reasons why some bilingual children end up being more bilingual than others. We heard that younger isn’t always better and that it’s a good idea in the early years to concentrate on the heritage language. We also heard that the amount and type of input children hear at home is important. And crucially, research suggests that this is especially the case for the heritage language. Extracurricular activities like attending complementary schools or heritage language schools and friendships involving the heritage language are just two ways in which you can create richer input and increase your child’s chances of becoming and remaining an active bilingual. These are some of the factors that you have control over as a parent to a certain extent then, but in any case, malleable. So things that you can change. But there are also factors that impact on children’s bilingual outcomes that you can’t change. The language aptitude is an example of this. In many instances, if not all, there is no one size fits all, no one factor that wins out above all others. As Joanna said, it’s often a trade off. The choices parents make are personal and will depend on individual circumstances, individual children and even the languages in question. What’s crucial, though, is that you’re aware of the potential consequences of the choices you make as a parent or the advice you give as a teacher or clinician. I hope this episode will help you make some of those choices. We’ll be back in a month with an episode about identity. What is it and how does it develop in children growing up with two or more languages? If you want to make sure you don’t miss that one, then please subscribe if you haven’t already done so and if you’ve enjoyed this episode. It will be wonderful if you could take the time to rate Kletsheads or even write us a review. You can do that in your podcast app and it will help us reach more listeners. That’s it for now until the next time. 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 favorite 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.
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