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Bilingual Kids Mix Languages, and it’s ok! Here’s what you can do to help

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Bilingual Kids Mix Languages, and it’s ok!

Why bilingual kids mix languages and what you can do to help them.

“Mummy look at the train, it’s going molto veloce” says my two year old, mixing his languages, English and Italian. Sometimes he even says things like “Mummy, can I have the spoon blue? Using English, but with Italian grammar. It’s been quite a common occurrence since he started to talk. His older brother was the same at this age, I would constantly hear him start a sentence in English, and finish it in Italian. I had to remind him of the English words that he needed.

For parents raising bilingual children, language mixing is often seen as a negative consequence of learning two languages simultaneously. Unfortunately, many families are caught up in the myths of bilingualism, believing that children become confused learning multiple languages. Consequently it sometimes it leads to them dropping a language.

However, mixing languages is completely normal for bilingual kids. Ask any parent with children learning multiple languages. Most will say they have experienced it. It is nothing to be concerned about and can actually be a positive thing.

Bilingual kids use the vocabulary they have to express themselves

Because bilingual kids are learning two sets of vocabulary, they have double the amount of words to learn than their monolingual peers. When children are trying to express themselves, they use the vocabulary they know, so if they are lacking from one language, they will make it up with the other.

I actually do it myself when I speak Italian with my husband. Though I can speak Italian quite fluently, I do not have a full vocabulary. Therefore, it is common for me to be speaking in Italian and throw in an English word every now and again if I can’t think of it in Italian.

What you can do when your child is mixing languages

Apart from giving your child more exposure to each language, especially the minority language, there are a few things you can consider:

Accept that your child will mix languages

Accept that it is normal. It is common for your child to mix their languages until they have a full vocabulary in both languages. It is usually just a phase and soon enough they will be speaking both languages fluently.

Avoid negative consequences

Stay positive. Negative consequences can result in your child losing their confidence to speak one or even both of their languages. Children need to feel confident when they speak.

Model the correct language

If your little one is mixing languages, correct and repeat what they should say, in the language you expect them to use with you. This way, they hear the correct way to say the sentence, and you will reinforce their language abilities.

It can be frustrating, but it won’t be forever

Hearing your child mix languages can be frustrating for parents, especially for those who don’t speak your child’s second language and can’t understand them. However, trust that your child is not confused, and that it is a normal part of language acquisition for bilingual kids. Think of mixing languages as a positive thing. Your little one is learning to compensate for the vocabulary they lack in one language. Once they learn the missing vocabulary, they won’t have the need to mix anymore. And then while they will be talking in one language, you will be secretly missing those cute little mix ups.

What about you, what is something funny your child has said lately mixing their languages?

 

For further reading, see how to broaden your child’s vocabulary, or how to improve the minority language.

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3 Comments

  1. Nice article! This sounds so familiar… Think it’s a great thing to be able to mix languages and I love the fact that with our family we have our ‘own’ language!

    I once told my 3 year old daughter to stop saying ‘nee’ (no) to me in Dutch and she just looked at me and said ‘no’. So smart and cheeky!

  2. Esteban Olmedo

    Completly agree that people (obviously kids included) who speak multiple languages will alternate between them, that it should not be addressed negatively and that in some scenarios a word in another language conveys meaning like another language cannot.

    That being said, as a bilingual person, I often experience my self and others lazily using the first language that comes to mind.

    I now use three strategies when I find my self in this scenario
    – I create a natural pause to convey thought as I scramble my brain for the word I’m after in the language I was speaking.
    – I ask the person I’m speaking to for help in remembering/learning the word I’m after.
    – Reframe the sentence so I avoid the word I’m struggling with and come back to it later.

    For children, rather than addressing the situation negatively, I will
    – Repeat back the sentence e.g. the child says: ‘I like dulces’ – I would say: ‘you like sweets?’
    – If I observe that a child is thinking about a word, attempting to remember it, I will judge the situation and give them the word if it will help continue the flow of the discussion. This can be tricky as it’s about timing and making sure that I’m not taking the child’s opportunity to remember the word.

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