Can children learn two languages at the same time?

When two parents speak different languages – for example, one parent is French and the other is English – it can be confusing to decide which language to use when talking to your child. Speech and language development can be tricky for some young children and learning more than one language early on at the same time can get complicated. It can slow down speech development a little. But most toddlers and young children are able to master the challenge of learning two languages at the same time, unless they are experiencing specific language developmental difficulties. In fact, the first few years of life offers the most potent and powerful opportunity for learning a language and for learning a second language on top of that.

In the beautiful words of Prof Astrid Berg, consultant psychiatrist at the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Red Cross Hospital, Cape Town, “You should speak to your child in the language of your heart”. Your own mother tongue is what you should be using when you talk to your child, especially in the early years of her life.

I think things can get complicated though a little bit later on when two parents speak to their children in different languages. Sometimes a parent talks fluently to her child – in German, for example – and the other parent doesn’t understand what his partner and child are saying. He is then left out. This can cause (or be a symptom of) quite a serious division in the family. When half the family doesn’t understand what the other half of the family is saying, the communication and cohesiveness of the family are under threat.

So what’s the solution? If you are bilingual and can speak either language comfortably, rather speak the language that your partner uses so that your family all understand one another and nobody gets left out. But if the language of your heart is different to your partner’s language, start giving him lessons now. He needs to learn your heart language so that he can understand the conversation between you and your child.


One comment
  1. Cecile Blake

    I think this is good advice. I decided to speak Afrikaans to my child because its my mother tongue, and english is all around us and easy to learn through her nanny and grandparents.My daughter is about to turn 2 and speaks 2 languages well. The peadiatrician warned that it could result in a delay in learning, but i found that wasn’t the case at all.

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