[lg policy] Why it's OK for bilingual children to mix languages

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri Jun 22 10:32:09 EDT 2018

 Why it's OK for bilingual children to mix languages June 21, 2018 by
Chisato Danjo, The Conversation <http://theconversation.edu.au/>
[image: Why it's OK for bilingual children to mix languages]
Credit: Shutterstock

Few would consider mastering more than one language a bad idea. In fact,
research points to a number of cognitive, economic and academic advantages
in being bilingual.

Parents who speak different languages understand the family home is an
important setting to learn both, and seek various ways
<http://bilingualmonkeys.com/my-best-tips-for-raising-bilingual-kids/> to
help their children <https://medicalxpress.com/tags/children/> thrive
bilingually. One of the best-known approaches is the "
<http://www.raising-bilingual-children.com/basics/info/rules/>" strategy
(OPOL). Each parent uses one language
<https://medicalxpress.com/tags/language/> when communicating with their
child, so their offspring learn both languages simultaneously.

OPOL emphasises consistency
– sticking to one language each – as key to its approach. But this creates
the myth that mixing languages should always be avoided. My recent study
part of a new wave of multilingualism studies
<https://academic.oup.com/applij/issue/39/1>, would suggest this received
wisdom is just that: a myth.

My research looked at Japanese-British families living in the UK with pre
and early school-age children who were following a more-or-less strict OPOL
language policy. I was particularly interested in examining the impact of
OPOL in the family home – how does this unique language environment affect
the way children use languages?

Most of the Japanese mothers who participated in my research were fluent in
Japanese and English, while the fathers possessed an elementary grasp of
Japanese. This made English the primary language of communication between
the parents and outside the home. For this reason, the mothers were careful
to carve out additional space for more sustained Japanese language learning
with their children. In other words, this dedicated space for communicating
in Japanese (the minority language) was time children would spend
exclusively with their mother. This seemed to create a connection between
"Japanese language" and "motherhood" in the children's perception.

This link became apparent in how children used Japanese as a means of
emotional bonding with their mother and adopted a much broader behavioural
"repertoire" than usually associated with language. For example, switching
to Japanese could sometimes serve as a method to appease mum when she
seemed unhappy. At other times, refusing to communicate in Japanese was a
useful means of defiance, even when the dispute was not related to

Language can never be a neutral communication tool. How it is used at home
and beyond – socially, at school, in the workplace – brings additional
connotations and meanings which are used consciously or unconsciously in

*Creativity with language*

The OPOL approach emphasises the need for parents to monitor children's
language closely and correct them if they mix the two languages. In
practice, many parents speaking the minority language are bilingual
themselves – so they understand what their children are saying even when
they do mix the two. Parents may feel it is difficult to keep correcting
children when they mix languages because they just want to have a
meaningful conversation whatever language their child uses. This is
especially the case when children show annoyance at being corrected.

But what if a child uses language that is difficult to categorise into
either Japanese or English? An example involved the use of English words
absorbed into Japanese pronunciation. One of many borrowed words adorning
the Japanese language, "ice cream" is usually pronounced "aisukurimu
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPTvqnl0aIw>", emphasising the general
feature of vowel-ending sounds in Japanese.

The distinction between singular and plural does not exist in Japanese
nouns in the English language sense, so whether using singular or plural,
even in a borrowed word, "aisukurimu" is the form normally used. But one of
my child participants showed his mother a drawing of two cones of ice cream
and described them as "aisukurimuzu", with a Japanese pronunciation but in
English plural form. The child had created something in between, perhaps to
avoid being corrected.

Another example is interaction between Japanese-English bilingual siblings.
A six-year old girl was trying to convince her four-year old brother to let
her play with his toys. Following firm rejections by her brother, the girl
drew on her communicative repertoire to convince him.

First she shifted from an authoritative demand to a softer and humbler
request. She rephrased the question by using various polite forms. Then her
voice changed nasally, suggesting that she was about to burst into tears.
Even more interestingly, while the negotiation had begun in English, in the
middle she shifted to Japanese.

Although this may give the impression of language mixing, a considerably
more complex process was taking place. The shift was accompanied by the
incorporation of Japanese cultural elements, such as honorific titles
that emphasise emotional attachment, a relationship of dependence between
sister and brother, and an assumed obligation to care by the brother. She

*A more holistic approach*

These examples show how creatively and strategically human beings use
language in their daily communication. Whether bilingual or not, we all
constantly select from our repertoire anything that will best serve our
purpose. For instance, imagine you want to ask a favour from your
neighbour. You would use polite language in a friendly voice. But what
about your facial expression? Your body language? For bilinguals, shifting
between languages is all part of their repertoire.

Our language repertoires are shaped by meaning, based on the knowledge
garnered throughout our lives. And the ways we use language also shape its
meaning. So ways of using OPOL in the family bring specific meaning to
language used at home, and children make full use of its emergent meaning
in their own interactions.

The popularity of OPOL rests on its commonsense simplicity, which is mostly
that it is consistent. But when we see a child actively using, adapting and
negotiating their repertoire, it casts doubt on the belief that it's bad
for children to mix languages. What it could actually be doing is
demonstrating high-level flexibility and interpersonal skills.

Being bilingual is not simply about being able to speak two languages.
Rigidly policing consistency in the one-parent-one-language approach could
actually restrict bilingual children's linguistic ability and creativity.
And in the same way, it could also limit their parents' ability to reveal
their own bilingual skills, using their own repertoires.

further:* American sign language and English language learners: New
linguistic research supports the need for policy changes


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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