Should my bilingual child be switching between languages?

I often overhear my son, Nathan saying this to my mum in Cantonese “我喜歡吃 watermelon” (“I like to eat watermelon”). My mum has often commented to me, “He says a bit in English and a bit in Cantonese.”

Have you heard people say this about their bilingual children or even said it about your own? The child is switching back and forth between languages in a conversation, often even mid-sentence.

It is often misunderstood as the child being ‘confused’ or that they are not proficient in either language however this is not the case. In fact, this is a typical characteristic of a bilingual user allowing them to draw on the resources of both bilingual codes at once (Palmer, 2009).

What is Code-switching?

When a child switches back and forth between two languages in the same sentence, using both with accuracy and fluency – this is called ‘code-switching’. For example, a French-English code-switch may be “je veux aller manger tomato” (“I want to go eat tomato.”). This child is actually thinking bilingually and is able to draw on all the resources of both languages simultaneously.

If you are hearing your child do this regularly at home, it is a sign that he or she recognises it as a bilingual home. They are less likely to do this in environments that they recognise are monolingual (e.g., school) or with individuals who they do not recognise as sharing their languages.

There is another type of code-switching that is sometimes referred to as ‘borrowing’. If your child uses one primary language but mixes in words or ideas from another language, they are borrowing. This is usually done when they are lacking the exact word for the concept they are trying to express in the language being used at that time. For example, a foodie may use the Japanese unami without explaining that they mean a ‘hearty-salty savoury flavour’.

Why do children code-switch?

Children can actually adjust the amount that they code-switch depending on the bilingual proficiency of their conversation partner. In a study with 4-to-6-year-old bilingual children, Vu and colleagues (Vu, Bailey, & Howes, 2010), found that children code-switched to try to gain the interviewer’s attention or to change speaking roles. This suggests that these young children have the facility to use their two languages strategically for both linguistic and nonlinguistic purposes from a very early age. Other studies have found code-mixing to be used to emphasize something, express emotion, or to highlight what someone else said in the other language. For example, “Y luego él dijo STOP” (Spanish mixed with English: “And then he said STOP!”). These results challenge the notion that code switching by children who are learning two languages is due to lack of proficiency, and instead support the view that it is used as a strategy to extend their communicative competence during peer interaction (Reyes, 2004). Therefore, code-mixing is natural and should be expected in bilingual children.

How to support your child who code-switches:

  • Don’t panic – it’s a natural part of learning multiple languages
  • Do what feels comfortable for you and your family. Don’t try to speak a language with your child if you are not comfortable or fluent in that language.
  • Provide lots of opportunities to hear, speak, play and interact in your home language.
  • If you prefer for your child to speak in your home language with you, ask them gently to do so.

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Your Little Birdies

References:

    1. Genesee, F. H. (2009). Early childhood bilingualism: Perils and possibilities. Journal of Applied Research on Learning, 2 (Special Issue), Article 2, pp. 1-21.
    2. Palmer, D. K. (2009). Code-Switching and Symbolic Power in a Second-Grade Two-Way Classroom: A Teacher’s Motivation System Gone Awry. Bilingual Research Journal, v32 n1 p42-59.
    3. Reyes, I. (2004). Functions of Code Switching in Schoolchildren’s Conversations. Bilingual Research Journal, v28 n1 p77-98.
    4. Vu, J. A., Bailey, A. L., Howes, C. (2010). Early Cases of Code-Switching in Mexican-Heritage Children: Linguistic and Sociopragmatic. Bilingual Research Journal, v33 n2 p200-219.