Bilingual Babies = Globalised Babies

January 27, 2009

This weekend my husband M. and I realised that our efforts to raise our one year old son N. bilingually are paying off.  Of course we’ve always suspected that he understands both of us, but being good social scientists, this weekend we conducted some tests.  Would he clap his hands if we asked him to do it both in Italian and English?  Yes.  Does he understand other gestures in both languages as well (e.g. bye-bye / ciao is matched with waving)?  Yes.  And even more, does he understand language specific gestures (e.g. the Italian gesture for something being tasty) can also be translated into the other language?  Yes: he understands that if I ask in English whether something he is eating is good, he can respond using the same gesture.  The plethora of Italian hand gestures means that we can keep testing this last one, though it will be harder to test in reverse.

This was all intensely exciting to his two nerdy parents, and reassuring that we have chosen a good strategy in terms of language.  M. always speaks to N. in Italian, and I always speak to him in English.  For now, his exposure to the two languages is about even despite the fact that we live in London, as our nanny is Italian and he sees both sides of our families often.  This is generally the strategy that is advocated by language acquisition experts, but there is surprisingly little information in mainstream baby books / websites about bilingual children.  Most of the US based information focuses on preserving immigrants’ languages in second cultures, and a lot of the information I found in the UK was about “artificially” introducing a second language (e.g. French) to a child, when neither parent is a native speaker.   We sort of went with the one parent, one language strategy because we knew that it what was recommended by other parents, not through any detailed analysis (surprisingly for aforementioned nerds).  And also because it makes sense: who wants to speak to their child in a language that is not their own?

Given that globalisation is about the movement of people, not just the movement of goods, the number of children born to parents of two different nationalities,  who speak two different native languages, must be on the rise (though note that I could not find any hard data on this online).  Certainly it is common amongst the couples we know in London: in some families, there are at least three operational languages as the parents speak two different native languages and speak to each other in a third (usually English).  The kids are fantastic at switching between all three (amazingly to all of us).

There is evidence that children raised bilingually learn language differently.  Whereas mono-lingual babies sort between nonsense sounds and useful sounds early, which affects their babbling, bilingual babies keep their options open as nonsense sounds in one language might be important sounds in the other (this is particularly true when the languages are very different, say Chinese and English).   I’ve been amazed to hear N. make noises which are exclusive to one of his two languages, like “th” in English or “gli” in Italian.

So for globalised babies, double effort in learning to speak.  Our little guy must master not only his mother tongue, but also his father tongue.


One Response to “Bilingual Babies = Globalised Babies”

  1. LMP said

    Point on the above lack of statistics about the growth of bilingual / binational families: I heard on BBC news this evening that 14% of British school children speak English as a second language.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: