Bilingual children

Are two languages always better than one?

Are two languages always better than one?
It's a dilemma faced by many international families: will bringing up your kids as bilingual give them an edge, or set them up for mediocrity in two languages, asks Lee Martin.  

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

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.”

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