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Health & Fitness

Language development in multilingual homes

Language development is to a large extent a
Language development is to a large extent a reflection of the things the child hears from day to day. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Qn: My household is multilingual and a friend claims that could be affecting the speech of my three-year-old son. Is this possible or could the child be having other challenges other than being exposed to many languages at the same time?

As often happens in life, both possibilities could co-exist! There is the possibility that too many languages could confuse any person, not just the three-year-old in your life, but it is also possible that another unrelated reason could be causing your child to show evidence of difficulties in language development.

Rather than depend on the opinion of your friend who might be an excellent banker or engineer, allow yourself to ask an expert in this field and the matter could easily be brought to rest.

A few preliminaries might be of help to illustrate the possibilities.

First of all, what does multilingual mean? In other words, how many languages are spoken in your family? In most cases, communication between spouses is through one, at most two primary languages. Many families make a conscious (sometimes unconscious choice) to speak in one or other language to each other and it is that or those languages that the three-year-old should be picking up.

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If, for example, a Luo is married to a Kamba, it is unlikely that either of the two languages would be the primary one unless the family makes the decision that one or the other language will be spoken in the house and the children must, therefore, be exposed to that one language. This is a possible scenario but it is not the most common one.

When a marriage takes place between such a couple, a more likely scenario is where English or Kiswahili becomes the medium of communication at home. It is unlikely that one parent will attempt “to teach” their child Dholuo while the other pushes Kamba down their ears.

So, at best, you are in a bilingual situation, and most normal children can cope with such a linguistic environment.

Indeed, experts speak of bilingual first language acquisition, which means that a child like yours will have two native or first languages (Luo and Kamba). If your child is, on the other hand, exposed to English and Kiswahili these would also be termed as his primary or native languages.

This, to be distinguished from any other languages he might later learn in life, say French or Chinese, which would be considered to be second or third languages.

We recently saw a three-year-old child from parents who spoke two languages at home (Kikuyu and English) and they thought that this was the reason for the delay in the acquisition of language in their child, who by the age of two did not seem to be learning any words.

A friend who had done a short course in counselling thought the child could be autistic and sent the child for evaluation. It turned out that the child was, in fact, mostly deaf and the little he did that seemed like understanding spoken speech was not as a result of hearing. He was sent to an expert in ENT and the last we heard of him, they were all making progress.

In yet another referral for difficulties in language acquisition, it turned out that the child had features of delayed intellectual development.

This rather long story is intended to stop you taking medical advice from your friend, the butcher or hairdresser and to seek expert advice on this most important matter of the future of your child.

While at this subject, remember that many young parents are busy chasing their careers (not a bad thing).

That leaves bringing up children in the hands of mostly poorly educated and even less motivated house-helps.

Since language development depends on the exposure to language the child hears, a set of parents were horrified to hear their three-year-old boy talking “adult words of love” in the language of their house-help and the gardener.

It was clear that the two were having a kind of love affair in the presence of the child.

Another child exposure was to Nigerian films that the house help watched all day in the presence of the child.

The lesson from these two examples is that language development is to a large extent a reflection of the things the child hears from day to day.

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