Yebo, Daddy

By Drum Digital
23 March 2014

So Mum is Afrikaans and Dad is English. Or Dad is English and Mum is Xhosa. Which means the two sets of grandparents also speak different languages. And they all want to be able to talk to their grandkids. So how do you decide which language will be your child’s mother tongue? And how and when do you go about teaching your child a second language? We give you some advice.

From the age of four and throughout her schooling her mom would declare an English day once a week. Paulette van Heerden grew up in an Afrikaans home in Bloemfontein but her mom decided early on to introduce her daughter to a language she believed would give her an entree into the rest of the world. So by the time Paulette started school she was also able to express herself in English. And years later when her job took her to the UK and America she was even more grateful for those “English days” as a child.

Consequently, when Paulette and her ex-husband moved to the predominantly English community of Scarborough in Cape Town, she decided to pass the torch to her now fully bilingual daughters, Nina and Claire.

“When they were babies I’d speak to them in Afrikaans and sing the songs that were near and dear to me,” she says. “But I also made an effort to speak and sing in English – like songs from The Wizard of Oz.”

By the time the girls started school they adapted easily to their English classes and peers. At home, however, Paulette insisted they speak Afrikaans. “I still wanted them to maintain a proper connection to our Afrikaans roots,” she explains.

But bringing up bilingual children did come with challenges initially. “They’d often mix languages in a sentence, especially when speaking about abstract or technical topics,” Paulette explains. “And my Afrikaans family would get quite annoyed!”

During the first year or two at school the girls also struggled with English grammar and phonics. Paulette had to explain to teachers that they came from an Afrikaans home.

“Now I’m amazed at how easily they switch between English and Afrikaans when speaking to different friends.”

Rudo Chasakara is a direct product of South Africa’s richly cosmopolitan culture. She was born to a Tswana-speaking dad and Xhosa-speaking mom in a predominantly Afrikaans community in Kimberley. Although both parents were fluent in Afrikaans and English, for as long as Rudo can remember English was the language most spoken in her home.

“I think my parents were trying to prepare me for the competitive work environment by speaking the global language,” she says. “I also think it bridged a gap for them as they spoke different languages.”

Although Rudo attended a Tswana preschool, her further studies were in English. “So I never had any formal training in either Tswana or Xhosa,” she continues, “but I picked them up from my parents’ conversations with each other and friends and up until this day can communicate in those languages.”

In her matric year the family moved to Johannesburg and by then English had become Rudo’s first language. “I know many will see it as an advantage that I speak English,” she says. “But sometimes I feel like less of an African woman. I’m sad I speak a European language better than languages from this continent. And I wish that was developed more when I was a child.”

Clearly there’s a balance to be struck when raising bi- or multilingual children. But if you can find that fine balance, experts say there are some real developmental benefits. It’s all about how you do it . . .

Conversations with kids

“Introducing a second language can begin as soon as your child is born,” says Gill Naeser, an early childhood development specialist with the Centre for Early Childhood Development of South Africa and former primary school teacher with 15 years’ experience.

“There are two parts to language development. The first process, which starts at birth, is called receptive language – that’s when a child hears and begins to understand words. Parents can already begin to speak more than one language to their child at this stage so they become familiar with the sounds and can begin placing words with objects.

“The second process is expressive language, when they start talking,” Naeser continues. “This is when bilingual children can slowly begin to express what they have learned from both languages.”

Cape Town neurologist Dr Ronald van Toorn agrees that, psychologically, the best developmental time for second-language acquisition is between birth and age six to eight. This is because the brain is most flexible and attuned to absorbing and using information at this time.

“The period can extend to puberty and won’t be impossible after then,” says Dr Van Toorn. “But acquiring a second language before and during early school days is best in terms of the development taking place in the brain.”

It may be developmentally best, but the ideal time for introducing a second language is not set in stone.

“There is a school of thought which argues that a child should first be anchored in their primary language before a second language is introduced,” says Gaontebale Nodoba, a linguistics lecturer at UCT’s Professional Communication Unit. Pretoria educational psychologist Dr Don Roos agrees.

“It’s best for a child to spend about three to four years learning only the mother tongue, even if other languages are spoken in the home,” he says. “A new language can then be formally introduced but it’s best for the child to know one language well to avoid a period of confusion between the two.”

Dr Roos accepts that parents may swell with pride when their cute little kids can more-or-less speak two languages. But the fact is, if they can’t speak both fully, their schooling could suffer later on. “Yes, the child may eventually adapt,” he adds. “But this is an initial drawback.”

Mostly, however, a bilingual child will begin to babble, say her first words and then produce sentences at the same time as her monolingual counterpart. Both can generally say about 50 words at 18 months of age but because bilingual children are exposed to more than one language the 50 words will be split between the languages, putting them at a slight disadvantage. But only initially. In fact, according to Canadian second-language acquisition expert Professor Fred Genesee from McGill University, this short delay has an insignificant effect on bilingual children’s overall learning ability in the long run.

How to balance bilingualism

A child learns a second language in one of two ways, either in an informal environment such as interacting with family and friends or in a formal learning environment such as a classroom, says Professor Elizabeth Pretorius, director of the academic literacy research unit at the department of linguistics at Unisa.

She explains that kids who learn a second language informally will be able to use it in everyday conversations – a type of language proficiency called Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS).

“Children can acquire quite high levels of BICS in a fairly short time span – anything from one to three years,” she says. But she still feels that a second language is better learnt in a more formal context. Why? Because children have to learn to read and write as well as doing more demanding tasks such as maths or social studies in the second language. And this leads to so-called Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP).

“Building up CALP in a second language can take five to seven years,” says Prof Pretorius, “provided the child attends a good school where quality learning is provided and emphasis is placed on reading and writing in the second language.”

She also explains that, while many children achieve high levels of basic skills in a second language, this can be misleading. “Basic skills don’t necessarily equip them to succeed academically in the second language. So children need to acquire both BICS and CALP in the second language.”

But does this mean you should send your child to an English school even if English isn’t your home language? And what is best – primary education in your child’s home language and further education in English?

Some parents are forced to face these questions when they themselves speak different languages. Take Carien and Ian White from Humansdorp, for example. Carien was raised Afrikaans while Ian is Scottish and speaks only English. Since the birth of their children each parent has communicated with them in their respective mother tongue. So Sonia and Dean became bilingual before starting school. The kids attended an English school from Grades 0 to 3. But, on moving to Humansdorp, they were both enrolled in Afrikaans classes.

“While Sonia excelled, David’s grades took a dip,” says Carien. During a meeting with his teachers Carien was told that her son “thinks in English”. The solution: Sonia remained in the Afrikaans class, but David was moved to an English class. Then both children performed well. Carien sees her children’s bilingualism as a blessing because they’re able to effectively communicate with both sides of the family.

If the aim is to introduce a second language without displacing or endangering the mother tongue, this can be achieved by speaking to your child in his or her home language, says Prof Pretorius. “If non-English children attend an English-speaking school, parents should continue to speak their own language to the child in the home environment,” she says. “This helps the child stay in touch with their own language and culture. If they help the child with homework tasks this can be done in English since these are more formal academic tasks. But other forms of interaction at home should be in the child’s home language.”

Of course, many parents want to invest in their children’s English proficiency because it’s such an important global language. But going straight for English from the start of schooling is not the best way to achieve this proficiency, says Prof Pretorius.

“It puts the child at a great disadvantage cognitively and can be culturally and emotionally traumatic. In such cases children should preferably first attend an English preschool and become acquainted with the second language in this more informal environment, through interaction with their playmates and through nursery rhymes and storybook reading in preschool,” she says.

After preschool Prof Pretorius has two recommended tacks for parents wanting to build practical bilingual proficiency. Either the child’s initial schooling should be done in the home language (at least for the Foundation Phase, i.e. Grades 1 to 3) and then changed over to English later. Alternatively, home-language schooling can be prolonged and the crossover to English made as late as high school.

The benefits of bilingualism

“Studies show that on every level bilinguals perform better in intelligence tests, logical reasoning and problem-solving activities,”says Cape Town neurologist Dr Ronald van Toorn. In fact, research going back to the 1970s documents the cognitive benefits of being bi- or multilingual.

These include:

  • Learning a second language at a young age increases the development of a child’s cognitive pathways, making him or her more efficient at acquiring new information. Studies show that this stays with bilinguals until old age, as they’re less likely to experience age-related cognitive problems.
  • At high school or tertiary-education level and beyond, bilingual people have more information available to them in print, electronic and other media, whether it’s for entertainment, current affairs or academic purposes.
  • Job opportunities in international business and government often require competence in two or more languages. Travel opportunities are also much greater for those who speak extra languages.

When to tread carefully…

There are times when experts caution parents not to introduce a second language or at least to consult a professional speech therapist if they’re considering it. “For example, children who have learning difficulties such as dyslexia may find it hard to read and write in a second language even if they’re able to speak it,” early childhood development specialist Gill Naeser says. “A deaf child may also find a second language confusing.”

Tips on teaching your child a second language

  • Here’s expert advice on doing it right from early childhood development specialist Gill Naeser and second-language acquisition expert Professor Fred Genesee from McGill University in Canada:
  • Second-language acquisition is most successful when children are equally exposed to both languages. The second language should take up at least 30 per cent of their total language exposure.
  • Children also need continuous exposure to both languages so introduce both languages in conversations daily.
  • Motivating children to use both languages can be a challenge as young children may gravitate towards the language their friends use. To counter this, parents can illustrate the value of the second language by opting for playgroups with children who speak that language or frequently visiting relatives who speak it.
  • The child needs to hear the language spoken correctly. If a parent isn’t fully confident in the language, get the help of a professional or family member to help encourage use of the language.
  • It’s important to talk about things that are relevant to the child. So use the second language when discussing what the child chooses to wear in the morning, what they’re eating and which toys they’re playing with. Also ask easy questions to which they can respond and repeat words and sentences often. For example, every morning ask what they want for breakfast in the second language.
  • Teach them about the culture that surrounds their second language. The message children get about the language can create a positive or negative experience about acquiring it.

- Kim van Reizig

Find Love!