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Have you ever dreamed of packing up and just taking off to another country? Giving your children the opportunity to learn a new language and culture? Maybe you dream of becoming fluent in another language.

I confess that I envy my friends from all over the world who effortlessly speak multiple languages. They can segue between different languages seamlessly as they talk to different people. I have always wanted to learn Chinese. I even took a few classes, but found that my commitment and resolve was not what I had thought. There is no doubt about it, becoming fluent in another language is beyond my grasp at the moment. I simply don’t have the time or commitment to make any significant improvements.

There are many benefits to learning another language. There is the obvious advantage of being able to talk with a wider variety of people, to be equipped when we travel, and of course we are always being told that learning another language is good for our brains.

If you have attempted to learn another language as an adult, you may share my frustration of battling to recall new vocabulary that just seems to slip from my mind, or making embarrassing errors of pronunciation. The reality is, if we want to become fluent in another language it is far easier to start when we are young. In fact the younger the better.

In my practice as a Speech Pathologist I have the opportunity to work with clients from a variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. When the client is a child, the family are usually visiting me because there are concerns about the child’s general language development. ‘He’s not speaking’ or ‘She’s not saying many words in English or own language’ is what I often hear from parents. Generally their first thought is that they should stop speaking their native tongue and just speak English. Focus on English first so he doesn’t get confused?

Whilst this advice might sound sensible, is it necessary? First, it is important to remember that children learn language through listening and interaction. They need lots of exposure to the sounds, words, and grammar of the languages that they will one day use. Secondly, the quantity and quality of the language they hear is important. Language is best learnt through social interaction and it does not matter who provides these opportunities for interaction. Children develop a robust knowledge of a second language when they hear it from lots of different speakers. Your child won’t become bilingual unless she has lots of exposure to good language role models.

Research tells us that children, even those who appear to be late talkers, can readily distinguish between two languages. Often the reason that these children ‘mix’ languages is that they tend to choose the word that they know best. For example, a child may use the word ‘hund’ when he is telling English speakers about his dog, this is simply because this word is most familiar to him. She will soon learn that there is another word for ‘dog’ in English.

If you have the opportunity to teach a child another language, seize it. To give them the best start on their journey to become bilingual, give them as much opportunity to hear both languages spoken by a range of speakers. Socialise with speakers of both languages. Don’t just focus on single words but practise songs and nursery rhymes, and tell stories in both languages.

If you are concerned about your bilingual child’s language development, here are some ‘red flags’ to look out for: • No sounds by 2-6 months of age; • Less than one new word per week for 6- to 15-month-old children; • Less than 20 words (in the two languages combined) by 20 months; and • No use of word combinations and a very limited vocabulary by age 2-3 years. • Lack of normal milestones in the first language • Prolonged phases of not talking • Difficulty retrieving words

Language learning strategies and supports can be applied across languages. If you are concerned about your child’s language development, Newcastle Speech Pathology can provide you with the support you need to develop their skills.

Written by Alison Speech Pathologist Newcastle Speech Pathology

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