Bilingual or mother tongue? What experts say is best for your child’s development

language learning
language learning

For parents with different cultural and linguistic lineage, Heritage Month will undoubtedly draw to the fore the age-old debate of what language should be spoken in the home. With increased focus given to optimal early childhood development practice, the question of whether more than one language should be spoken, becomes more about what is best for your child’s healthy and happy development, than what might be required culturally. 

Here, renown occupational therapist Meg Faure, who is also the co-author of the best selling Baby Sense series, and who will be speaking at the forthcoming inaugural Baby Show & #MeetUp, weighs in on the subject.

The Baby Show takes place at the Kyalami Convention Centre, September 28 to 30. The full list of speakers for Saturdays’ #MeetUp can be found here. For more info and tickets, visit

Language development beings in utero

During the last trimester of pregnancy, babies are starting to take in, and learn from, auditory information.

By the time the baby is born they begin to recognise their mother tongue

"They will recognise the syntax and intonation of whatever language is spoken around them and this prepares the baby for learning that language”, Faure points out. “This doesn’t however hinder the child’s ability to learn other languages. For example in the case of adoption where the child hears one language in utero, and a different one in the home.”

In multilingual homes, many parents ask whether they should pick either one language to speak at home, or to allow each parent to speak in their respective mother tongues.

“Some of the controversy came from experts who advised parents to choose one language in order to help the child learn that language well, however this has since been proven to be not true,” comments Faure.

Highly malleable brain during the first 1 000 days

Research today points to each parent and carer speaking their native mother tongue, specially during the first three years of life. “The brain is highly plastic and malleable in the first three years of life, with the increased capacity to learn languages, and different languages, much more so when they are young, than when they are older,” comments Faure.

A child therefore could healthily and happily learn Zulu from dad, English from mom and Xhosa from a carer. “This would give children a distinct advantage in a country like South Africa where the more languages you can proficiently use, the more success you will have in establishing strong relationships” points out Faure.

“There are many benefits for a multilingual child, with big advantages throughout life,” she continues. This window period for learning at the highest rate, during the first three years of life, does not mean languages cannot be learnt later in life. “It’s a whole lot easier if you are exposed, in those first 1,000 days,” Faure points out.

“The bottom line is ‘yes’ we want our children multilingual, ‘yes’ they should be hearing multiple languages when young.”

Emotional development trumps skills development

More important than learning language, which is skills-based learning, is developing emotional intelligence, or the ability to engage with people emotionally.

Mother tongue is found to be the optimal vehicle for conveying emotion and feeling. “The words your mother said to you, as she put you to sleep, will be the same words you will use to put your child to sleep,” points out Faure. “When you say, ‘Ah my darling, you are just too precious’ – those words convey a lot of emotions when said in your mother tongue.

But for me, as an English-speaking person for example, to try and translate those words with the same emotion into a second language, Afrikaans for example – ‘My liefie, jy is so kosbaar’ - won’t carry the same amount of emotion, because it’s not my mother tongue. I would be battling to get the syntax correct, never mind the tone!”

Faure says what experts now know is that when we hear our mother tongue spoken, it conveys more emotion, and this helps our children wire for engagement and relationships better.

Faure points out that successful development of relationships take precedence over skills development, so while it might be useful to learn multiple languages, it’s more valuable to hear and learn the emotions conveyed through the use of mother tongue. “For this reason I encourage carers in the home to speak their mother tongue to effectively communicate their emotions”.

This is particularly true for children with autism. “Whenever we have a child come in to the practice where we are concerned about their relationship or engagement style, we always tell parents to make sure all the carers are speaking their respective mother tongues.”

Where there is language development deficiency

At what point does any of this advice become ‘not true’? “This could potentially be not true if a baby has a deficiency in language development. Some children, for reasons that we don’t fully understand, don’t take to language quickly. I’m not talking about the autistic population, I’m talking about children who don’t have strong language skills.”

For these children, there's a delay in the up-take of language use. In this case, Faure advises that it would be easier for the child to learn language where only one type is spoken.

“We usually tell parents not to worry if their child is not speaking words in any language before 18 months, but if by 18 months there is still no verbal language use and a poor understanding of language as well, we then start to be concerned. If by 2 years old there are still no words, or maybe only five words, we would then start to consider using only one language.”

“Navigating the parenting journey in today’s world of information overload is daunting, especially for new parents,” points out Faure. “It’s the reason the #MeetUp event was created in the first place. We invite experts in their respective fields to impart knowledge in a practical, and easy to digest format, in order to make it easy to apply in the home."

The next #MeetUp is taking place as part of the Baby Show at Kyalami Convention Centre, September 28 to 30. The full list of speakers for Saturdays’ #MeetUp can be found here. For more info and tickets, visit

Are you raising your child in a bilingual home? Do you feel that there are any challenges? Let us know by emailing us at and we could publish your comments. Do let us know if you'd like to remain anonymous. 

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