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Are two languages always better than one?

The Local · 2 Jun 2010, 09:51

Published: 02 Jun 2010 09:51 GMT+02:00

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When American Mark Jesinkey moved to Sweden with his two daughters and his Swedish wife, they had to take the decision faced by countless similar families: what language should their children learn in? It was a major decision that would affect not only their educations, but their entire sense of national identity.

The Jesinkeys initially enrolled both their girls in Swedish-speaking daycare, but later transferred them to an English-speaking equivalent. When it was time for the girls to go to school they were enrolled in the English-speaking section of Stockholm's Johannes School. But for Mark, the choice of Johannes wasn’t just about the language:

"It seemed like a good idea. They had lots of friends who were going there," Mark tells The Local.  

Crucially, it also made his daughters feel special and helped them feel both a little Swedish and a little American. The main language in the household is English, where the only communication in Swedish is between Mark’s wife and their daughters. Mark feels they made a good choice in sending their daughters to English speaking schools but also says he is glad they both chose Swedish speaking gymnasiums for their final three years of schooling. 

"Going to Swedish gymnasiums helped them develop their Swedish a lot, but I still feel like their English is stronger. When one of my daughters took högskoleprovet, the Swedish university entrance test, there were things in Swedish that she should have known, but didn't."

He goes on:

"But they have never complained. I think it was a good experience and has helped them in their future studies."

When asked whether he thinks its necessary to attend a school in a different language to become bilingual, the answer is no.

"I know people whose children attend Swedish schools and only speak English at home, and their English is perfect. I think its possible, but it might be easier when the school takes care of most of the teaching," Mark tells The Local.

In order for both languages to develop equally and for the child to have the same fluency in both there has to be an equal balance between the languages. Balanced bilingualism, if it even exists, is hard to achieve. For most children, one language usually dominates. In order to create the same knowledge in both languages as a monolingual speaker, the learning process needs to be heavily structured.

"Parents have to work very hard if they want their children to be bilingual," Kamilla György Ullholm, from the Centre for Bilingualism at Stockholm's University, tells The Local.  

One way to help children become bilingual is to adopt the "one-parent, one-language" approach. This is a strict way of communicating with your child by only using one language per parent. According to György Ullholm, this is very hard to maintain throughout a child’s development.

"Another way of learning two languages is using them in different contexts, one language for play and one in more formal situations. This method can create the same flow and grammar control in both languages but can result in a difference in vocabulary," says György Ullholm.

One criticism commonly levelled at bilingualism is that it delays the point at which children learn to speak, but György Ullholm says that there is no evidence for this.

If bilingualism sounds like a challenge, spare a thought for Emily Ondusye, who has been brought up speaking three different languages, Swedish, English and Finnish. Apart from one year in Tanzania, where she attended an international school, she has lived in Stockholm her whole life, and attended English speaking schools from throughout her education.

"I am very happy that I attended English-speaking schools. It has been very beneficial, not only because I can speak more than one language but also because of the international vibe it brings," Emily tells The Local.   

She says most people are impressed by the fact that she is fluent in more than one language, but admits that her use of English grates with a few: 

"Some people get annoyed when they hear me speak English with friends who are also bilingual. I try to explain to them that I have grown up speaking English, that it is my mother tongue, but people still try to argue that we should speak Swedish as we are in Sweden and we both know Swedish."

Emily believes that she has been given an advantage by being taught several languages at an early age:

"It is good, because it is easier for me to work internationally. I can move to Finland if I want and manage better than someone who doesn't know the language. Also I have heard that people who can speak several languages have an easier time learning new languages," Emily tells The Local.  

It's certainly true that speaking two languages fluently can be a major advantage, not least in Europe, where the free movement of labour has opened up new opportunities. Most researchers agree that growing up bilingual is a positive experience, but going about it the right way is crucial.

Bringing kids up bilingual - the keys to success

Story continues below…

Advice from speech therapist Eva-Kristina Salameh on how to avoid problems with bilingualism:

  • Immerse your child in both languages equally, both in the spoken language and the written language
  • If the child attends school in one language try to get them to interact with peers in the school language to expand their vocabulary
  • Encourage your child to read and write in both languages, not only school literature
  • Bilingualism is not a problem when the child has the same access to both languages
  • Problems arise when one language is significantly overrepresented
  • In order for the school vocabulary to become sufficient in both languages, children attending Swedish-language public/state schools can attend classes in their home language, known as "hemspråksundervisning."

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

13:53 June 2, 2010 by Skånedave
"Parents have to work very hard if they want their children to be bilingual," ... The "one-parent, one-language" approach... is very hard to maintain throughout a child's development...

B*llocks. Nothing could be easier. The Swedish-speaking person speaks Swedish. The other person speaks their language.

Done. I should know - I have two bilingual kids, and have hardly given this aspect of their upbringing any thought at all.

What's all the fuss about?
14:37 June 2, 2010 by popein
From all I read about this topic before and personal experience, I think at home parents should use the language each of them use natively. I don't think it's a good idea to speak a language which is not your primary one to the child just to make him/her bilingual, because of many reasons, one of them being you make mistakes that the child will learn.

For foreigners as us, I'm strongly convinced every parent should use the language they feel as their own, and they should learn Swedish at school if none of the parents speaks Swedish natively.

English-speaking schools are good for Swedish children or children which came to Sweden when they were too old to learn Swedish.

I don't see the problem they develop the languages to the same level, from my point of view is perfectly fine they develop one language more than the other.
18:58 June 2, 2010 by calebian22

Agreed with the speaking aspect. That is easy. I am teaching my daughter to read and write in English though, rather than to wait for the Swedish school. I had two mixed Swedes in my SFI class, that could speak Swedish like a native but had to take SFI for the reading and writing aspect because their Swedish parent dropped the ball, in my opinion, when they were living abroad. My opinion is that if one is mixed, one should be able to function in both languages like a native. Anything less is a disservice to the child.
22:30 June 2, 2010 by efm
I live in the US. My childhood language is Spanish and learn English in School. I'm married to an American. I tried to teach Spanish to my daughter and it was hard. Now she regrets that she did not learn it well. She realized it is an asset to be able to speak more languages.
22:58 June 2, 2010 by Frank Lee
I was hoping the article would address the situation when one parent is Swedish and the other is Norwegian. Does that screw the kids up? Is it no problem at all? I know of people who are "bidialectal"--they speak English with a Scottish inflection with their parents and English with an American inflection with their friends. But that's not quite the same thing as Norwegian and Swedish. I agree with Scaanedave: the situations where one parent speaks English and the other speaks Swedish does not seem to cause any problem at all. The same if the parents speak Spanish and the neighborhood kids speak English (here in the U.S.). Conventional bilingualism doesn't seem to be a big deal (though a bit of "polishing" of the neglected language may be necessary at high school level).
09:19 June 3, 2010 by J Jack
Um, my 5 year old daughter speaks Swedish, Dutch, English, Catalan, Castellano & Mallorquin .... & I, a 45 year old, only speak English and Pub Svenska (& say hello & goodbye in Maori) ... So what's all the fuss ... Swedes trying to write outside the box instead of living there?
09:56 June 3, 2010 by nneville
@Skånedave I am with you 100%. My daughter and I use English 95% of the time and with her mom it is the same with Swedish. Our daughter began fluent English at age 4 becuase she wanted to stay with family in the USA while me and her mom took a trip to the Carribean. She knew Swedish would not fly with her US relatives, and worked very very hard to get all the Swenglish out of her system, and she did it - my little angel. Now at 13, she chooses to speak Swedish with me and so we do when she initiates. She event took Spanish for a while at the age of 5, but had no consistent interaction.

Kids can learn anything if the parents follow the rules and stop making excuses. Language requires a stable environment for growth. She's also been reading in both languages since 5.
09:56 June 3, 2010 by Decedo

I also agree. My (swedish) wife and her family only speak Swedish and I speak English to our son. He's still young, but he understands us very well. We'll be sending him to an English Dagis and still undecided on an international school.

We have some Swedish friends who are trying to bring their kids up bilingual. They're only speaking English at home, but neither of them speak English very well. I can see problems in the future with their pigeon-English
11:32 June 3, 2010 by AndreaGerak
"Parents have to work very hard if they want their children to be bilingual," -

WHAT??? And she is working at a language centre of a UNIVERSITY??? Is she speaking from her personal experience with having difficulties talking with her own kids Hungarian, which her name suggests? I would be sad about that.

I speak 3 languages fluently, two more a little bit and can read further 3, my son is treelingual, learning his 4th language - bot bad for a single mom, I guess...

Exactly: what's the fuzz about??

The key is the kid's interest to learn languages - and they just do that naturally, with hardly any effort, if they are in the right, supporting environment, let that be a home or a school.
13:24 June 3, 2010 by pevins
Alright Dave,

Say your child's friends are visiting speaking Swedish with your 5 yr old daughter and asking you things in Swedish, such as "Can we go out and play?". Do you answer in Swedish so her friend understands, or keep the "I only speak English with my daughter rule"?

I find this very hard to stick to when there are guests visiting the home and I am practicing my Swedish. It is quite difficult in the middle of a swedish conversation to instantly switch to English and say "yes you can have some apple juice" to my daughter who just asked for it in Swedish.

Did you have this problem when you were trying to learn Swedish?
13:27 June 3, 2010 by djrastah
Quite a hillarious question:) children are like super computers that absorb extremely quickly. To think other wise is doing them a massive disservice.
15:48 June 3, 2010 by african
i grew up in a place where i had no one speak my mother tongue except for my two parents,i went to school and had to learn the countries language and english.i speak both english and swahili perfectly and also my mother tongue.and on top of that i learned swedish too.languages shouldnt be a big issue, teach your children english coz it will help them more than any other language,as for the others,if your kid is smart enough he\she will try to learn.
17:24 June 3, 2010 by Petalpusher
@Andrea - Ditto.

What's the point of this article. As usual, Peabody winning journalism from The Local.

"Problems arise when one language is significantly overrepresented" ummm, duh!

Indians raise their children with at least 2 languages, three languages in many cases. It's not a big deal to write well and speak well in two languages. Just keep speaking, reading, writing in the languages you want your kids to learn.
21:58 June 3, 2010 by Mike #1986
blah blah blah...

my son has gone to swedish school his mother is swedish and i always speak English to him at home and he has no problem reading writing and speaking ..as my oldies back home say he sounds just like me......

00:10 June 4, 2010 by Ian11
Pevins, consistency is the key. Speak to your child in your native tongue and speak to her friends in Swedish. Switching is not that hard as long as you consistently practice it, maybe it will be weird at first but you'll get over it.... I should know after 3 small kids that speak languages fluently and further 3 moderately and 2 more being learned through singing… Kids have a very big capacity to learn multiple languages we just need to guide them a bit by being consistent. The one-parent, one-language "rule" works so does a specific "friends" language. Picture this 2 French kids teaching Swedish children to sing in Slovak and after a few minute the Swedish children picks up the songs properly…
02:03 June 4, 2010 by charlotteny
I thought this was an informative and relevant article. I am married to a Swede and we have 2 young children. I know only basic Swedish. I very much want them to be bilingual, but has been very challenging for us to do this living in the US. They are not very interested in Swedish when nearly everything around them is in English. We do our best to provide books, movies and music in Swedish, but it has been hard for my husband to always communicate with them in Swedish.
08:54 June 4, 2010 by sierradjembe
charlotteny: I am American and my wife is Swedish. We lived in Sweden for almost 8 years. We have a bilingual relationship. I speak English to her and she speaks Swedish to me. I also did this with many Swedish friends. So it was natural to continue this for the benefit of our son who was born in Sweden.

Then we moved to the states, when he was 1yo. He has developed strongly in both languages, and each tongue gets reinforced in turns by his interactions with family and friends.

Here is what I wondered after your post: They don't call it "mother tongue" for nothing. Our son's bond with his mother dominated his development early on and still does, and must be an important boost to his continued development of his Swedish here in the US. I wonder if bilingualism benefits if the mother provides the foreign tongue?

I certainly think that a bilingual relationship is beautiful and fun, and has benefitted bilingualism in our child. It wasn't easy at the beginning of our relationship though -- there was a lot of smiling and nodding...
10:21 June 4, 2010 by EtoileBrilliant
I can ad nothing to this discussion except to say that my continual use of English with my children has provided one more impediment to my own Swedish learning.
11:20 June 4, 2010 by Kevin Harris
I don't think I ever taught my Swedish kids English at all. they just caught it from me like influenza.

My youngest son was a bit behind his sisters. He went to visit Grandma in London for two weeks and came back fluent.

Kids don't learn second languages at home, they catch them.
18:55 June 4, 2010 by Iftikhar_Ahmad
Bilingual Muslims children have a right, as much as any other faith group, to be taught their culture, languages and faith alongside a mainstream curriculum. Rejecting state funded Muslim schools as "anti-democratic" or "divisive" is simply the wrong approach to take.

Compulsory state education has promised to promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental, physical and academic development of a child in preparation for adult life - has failed far too many children, particularly national minorities and especially Muslim children. Now the time has come that parents and community should take over the running of their local schools The Local Authority's role should be confined to simply ensuring schools operate within the prevailing legislative framework \(admissions criteria, Special Educational Needs, Community Cohesion, Financial Audit, etc). Parents can perform a better job than the Local Authority because parents have a genuine vested interest. The Local Authority simply cannot be trusted.

There is no end to Forced marriages and honour killings as long as Bilingual Muslim children keep on attending state schools with monolingual non-Muslim teachers. Muslim schools are attractive to Muslim parents because they have better discipline and teaching Islamic values. Bilingual Muslim teachers are role models who understand the needs and demands of their children.

Each and every Muslim child should be in a state funded Muslim school with bilingual Muslim teachers as role model during their developmental periods. There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school. Bilingual Muslim children need to learn and be well versed in Standard English to follow the National Curriculum and go for higher studies and research to serve humanity. At the same time they need to learn and be well versed in Arabic, Urdu and other community languages in order to keep in touch with their cultural roots and enjoy the beauty of their literature and poetry.

There are hundreds of state and church schools where Muslim children are in majority. In my opinion, all such schools may be designated as Muslim Academies. Muslim children are in majority in schools because native parents remove their children as soon as the number of Muslim children is on the increase. They do not want their children to mix with Muslim or any other migrant children

Iftikhar Ahmad

London School of Islamics Trust

09:17 June 5, 2010 by mombassa
"Iftikhar Ahmad" and his ilk need to be kicked out of Europe, ASAP.
09:39 June 5, 2010 by Marc the Texan
I wouldn't worry too much about teaching your kids English in Sweden. They get plenty of English education in school already. If I were raising kids in Sweden, I would have them do their studies in Swedish. They will be immersed in English for the rest of their lives and risk losing a good foundation in Swedish since English is so dominant globally.

When I met my first Swedish girlfriend, her English was very rusty since she never had much of a need for it outside watching movies or TV. After being with me for as little as six months she spoke perfect English with a Texas accent (oh yeah, which she still has by the way). When we were in Britain and America, people just assumed she was from Texas and were shocked to find out she was Swedish and had never been to Texas. Anyway, my point is that English is a special case. Its a global language and if your kids get decent instruction in English as a second language they will be capable of handling Uni classes in English and as time goes on will find fewer opportunities to speak Swedish. I would focus on the Swedish since it is already an endangered language which I think needs to be used and not forgotten.
08:25 June 6, 2010 by cblanquer
One relevant topic is also when the context change. We used to live in Barcelona, Spain so the children got profficient in Spanish and Catalan. My wife used Swedish and me French. That worked pretty well, while we had to accept Swedish was the weakiest language.

Now in Sweden, the local language took the first place, Catalan was dropped, and I have lots of work to keep French and Spanish alive.

We used the principle of 1 person-1 language, but I had to open up to Spanish, basically deciding some days are Spanish other are French. Additionally I organise one hour long lesson for each of the weak languages every week. Plus the eldr getting Spanish hemspraºk at the school, TV in both languagers on the weekend.

However this is clearly not enough, the strongest language is taking over most of the active communicaiton skills, so I am forced to think about alternative ways to bring them to be using their other languages. Any ideas apart from travelling to Spain and France?
09:48 June 7, 2010 by pevins
@Ian11 - Thanks for the thoughtful response. An added consideration I did not mention is that one of my daughters is behind in expressive language (all languages) so I am sometime afraid to switch to another language when she is communicating with me. But your point is well made. I have to stop tiptoeing around the children.

However see the point by EtoileBrilliant. This is my problem as well. I am working hard on my Swedish (to secure a job).

I do not respect any comments put forth by those who say it is easy to speak their mother tongue to their children, and have not bothered themselves to learn Swedish. Of course it is easy to speak your mother tongue to your children when that is all you know!
16:32 June 7, 2010 by ramazama
This mother tongue boloney, is all to do with the big ego , seeing the stupid country as mother , how sad is that ? This stupid," national idenity" bollox should be made illegal!. Americans , Australians , Canadians, dont have a, so called mother tongue , and its not a probnlem ,people get off your big stupid ego trips . All these minority , insignificant stupid mother ****** tongues should scrapped. Hello , its 2010 , one global village , one langauge , one currencey .
10:35 June 10, 2010 by Jannik
@Marc the texan

I totally agree with you. In the swedish/english case, parents should fully stimulate the swedish language skills. Children in most western countries, are exposed to english on a regular basis, so they will be stimulated adequately.

This especially applies if the family is living in Sweden. Its very practical that english has become the global language, but there is no reason for speaking english in public, if one is living in Sweden.

There is a cultural heritage in maintaning the indigenous language. But when one is living in, for instance, the US, maintaning swedish languge will be difficult in the long run.

But it would be a sad thing if every swede and foreigner staying in Sweden abandoned the swedish language, and started solely speaking english for practical purposes.
12:56 June 10, 2010 by Lleksam
I watched a documentary that claimed all languages apart from French, Icelandic will become second languages and everyone will speak English. The reason was hardly any languages except French and Icelandic create new words, they just adopt the English ones. Also most of the media is in English.

Just walking around and reading in Stockholm you can see English bleeding into their everyday life.

Oh and Iftikhar_Ahmad, You're completely wrong, Kids should go to school learn about all religions and then decide for themselves whether or not they want to follow a religion or not.

Most religious schools breed intolerance and poorly educated incorrectly based on the fairy tales told in the bible and Qur'an.
12:03 June 17, 2010 by dcdidit77
It is very easy for kids to pick up at least 2 or 3 languages at a time. I can speak three fluently as a result of bilingual parents and a tri-lingual grandparent, hence I see no reason why any child cannot do the same. Its not rocket science. Speak and they will listen! lol
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