Ask François Grosjean: Are My Bilingual Children Getting Enough Exposure?

by Corey · 4 comments

While Prof. Emeritus François Grosjean was working on his wonderful book Bilingual: Life and Reality, he asked me to send him a list of questions that I felt weighed the heaviest on the minds of parents raising multilingual children.  It is my honor to present both my questions and Prof. Grosjean’s answers here at Multilingual Living over the course of the next few weeks.

There are eleven Q & A in all which originally appeared in The Bilingual Family Newsletter, one of my favorite publications for families raising children in more than one language (in addition to my own Multilingual Living Magazine, of course)!  After each of of Prof. Grosjean’s answers you will find a list of the specific chapters from Bilingual: Life and Reality in which he addresses each question.  Enjoy!

How can one tell if children are getting enough exposure to each language?

In the case of children acquiring two languages simultaneously, it is important that they receive input (exposure) from each language on a daily or almost daily basis when the parents are using a strategy that involves both languages. If the parents’ aim is simply to bring the child into contact with another language, then less input is necessary. But if they want the child to use two languages on a daily basis, then there must be a lot of input from both languages.

As to the nature of the input, two points are important. First, the input should come from interaction with people (talking, playing, or reading) and not just from DVDs and television. Children will develop a language if they feel they need it and human interactants create that need.

Second, moments should be reserved where the input comes from people who do not know the other language, if at all possible, so that the input is free of elements of that other language in the form of code-switches and borrowings. Bringing in the other language is normal in a bilingual environment but it is important that bilingual children realize that they will also find themselves in monolingual situations at various times where only one language can be used.

Finally, there is no good measure of “enough exposure” but if the child is starting to be clearly dominant in one language and is tending not to understand or speak the other, then changes will have to be brought to the relative importance given to the two (or more) languages in his or her life.

Relevant chapters in Bilingual: Life and Reality which address this question: 4, 5, 14, 15, 16 & 17.

Stay tuned for our next installment of “Ask François Grosjean” in the coming days.


François Grosjean, the author of Bilingual: Life and Reality, received his degrees up to the Doctorat d'Etat from the University of Paris, France. He started his academic career at the University of Paris 8 and then left for the United-States in 1974 where he taught and did research in psycholinguistics at Northeastern University, Boston. While at Northeastern he was also a Research Affiliate at the Speech Communication Laboratory at MIT. In 1987, he was appointed professor at Neuchâtel University, Switzerland, where he founded the Language and Speech Processing Laboratory. He has lectured occasionally at the Universities of Basel, Zurich and Oxford. In 1998, he cofounded Bilingualism: Language and Cognition (Cambridge University Press). Visit his website at: www.francoisgrosjean.ch and his Psychology Today blog, Life as a bilingual, at: www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-bilingual.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Allison Bay June 14, 2010 at 11:23 pm

I found the part about code-switching particularly interesting. I’ve found that many people who have lived abroad for a longer period of time inevitably adopt certains words from the oustide language when they are speaking natively. One example that comes to mind is the word ‘turkey’ in English. We speak German at home, but turkey is not consumed in Germany like it is here. There is a word for turkey in German but it is rarely used and for some reason it just seems more natural to us to use the outside term for this when we talk to each other.

It also almost seemed like Prof. Grosjean is suggesting that code-switching should be minimized, or is not ideal for native fluency. I thought I read somewhere that code-switching can actually indicates a higher level of fluency in both languages. The fact that one can switch between language on a word by word basis, but overall maintain grammatical integrity seems to indicate a high level of fluency in at least one, if not both languages.

One question I struggle with is when my German speaking children formulate their sentences with an English/American sentence structure. What is the right way to respond? Should I simply repeat the sentence in the right way? Should I ask them to repeat it correctly? Should I let it go? Maybe it depends on their level of fluency?

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2 Kimberly de Berzunza July 7, 2010 at 10:13 pm

Language acquisition guru Stephen Krashen says correcting language learners grammar/usage is a waste of time and energy (unproductive), but I disagree. I have not done scientific research on this, but my own anecdotal experiences as a bilingual parent and teacher back me up. I have especially noticed it being effective with my 4-year-old… my 9-year-old no longer wants to listen to me! My 4-year-old will actually repeat it correctly several times without being told to, which is highly unusual behavior for her in any other situation!

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