Parenting - Advice - Bilingual Children Parenting - Advice - Bilingual Children

Bilingual Children

Bilingualism is the ability to speak two languages. With 11 official languages in South Africa, it is no wonder that the majority of South African speak more than just one language.

English is seen as a very important international language and its domination of science, media and the Internet is unquestionable. English is the language most often used in the media and even by politicians or government officials, even though attempts have been made to promote multilingualism. Among African language speakers, knowledge of more than one other African language is often at the order of the day.

According to Statistics South Africa, 23% of South Africans speak Zulu, 16% Xhosa, 14% Afrikaans and only 9% speak English (whether as a first or second language).

Benefits of learning a second language

Learning a second language at an early age:

  • Has a positive effect on intellectual growth, and enriches and enhances a child's mental development

  • Leaves students with more flexibility in thinking, greater sensitivity to language, and a better ear for listening

  • Improves a child's understanding of his/ her native language

  • Gives a child the ability to communicate with people she or he would otherwise not have the chance to know

  • Opens the door to other cultures and helps a child understand and appreciate people from other countries

  • Gives a student a head start in language requirements for college

  • Increases job opportunities in many careers where knowing another language is a real asset

Cognitive benefits for children

  • They have an easier time understanding concepts and solving problems.

  • They develop strong thinking skills – by using logic.

  • They are better at focussing, remembering and making decisions.

  • Some research also indicates that bilingualism may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

Socio-economical benefits for children

  • They maintain strong ties with their entire family, culture, and community, which is important for their developing identity.

  • They are also able to make new friends and create strong relationships in their second language.

Global benefits

Interestingly, nearly two-thirds of adults around the world speak at least two languages. In our global society, they have many advantages:

  • Bilingual adults have more job opportunities around the world than monolingual adults.

  • Bilingual individuals have the opportunity to participate in the global community in more ways, get information from more places, and learn more about people from other cultures.


Delay in spoken language

Multilingual children tend to speak a little later than others. Although there is no solid scientific evidence to suggest a delay in speech, anecdotally there is a real sense among parents that bilingual or multilingual children start talking three to six month later than monolingual children. If you think about it, it makes sense that a child learning two or more language systems might take more time, since they are actually learning twice as many words. But, rest assured, even if your child did not walk at nine months, eventually he ended up walking just as well as those precocious ones. The same thing holds true for language, even when you are talking about more than one. Guaranteed!

Mixing languages

Children learning two languages often slip back and forth between them, mixing up their words. This can disturb the parents, but can be even more alarming to the uninitiated. No worries. This tendency will pass once the child has built a large enough vocabulary -- around the age of four or five. Remember, monolingual three year olds often struggle to find the right word, and for that matter, adults don’t always find it easy to express themselves effectively either!

In some ways, the multilingual child has an advantage -- if he cannot think of the correct word in Zulu, for example, then he can say it in English. While the rest of us are speechless.

More effort

Perhaps the most easily overlooked drawback to taking the multilingual path is that it requires more effort on the part of the parents. Raising a multilingual child is a commitment. Much like piano lessons, you can't expect your little one to be a virtuoso overnight. Language learning is a long-term investment in your child and will require that you are able to provide enough language exposure. At times, you will probably need to boost the second language and offer some extra encouragement. You’ll need the persistence required to keep your family language rules as consistent as possible.

But, if you can keep faith for the first four or five years while a solid language foundation is put in place, things get easier. Incidentally, the multilingual second child is a breeze, if your first child was raised that way. Your first will end up doing a lot of the work for you by simply being a natural chatterbox!

There's no doubt that multilingual children have more advantages, but it can feel a bit overwhelming to someone already struggling with diapers and feeding schedules; however, I have yet to meet a single parent who regretted the decision. But, the appreciation from your child, as usual, is probably another 20 years out.

In schools

The South African Government recognises the importance of all languages spoken in South Africa.

In terms of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, the government, and thus the Department of Education, recognises that our cultural diversity is a valuable national asset and hence they are tasked amongst other things to promote multilingualism, to develop the official languages and to promote respect for all languages used in the country, including South African Sign Language and all languages referred to in the South African Constitution.

The Language in Education Policy

This policy was conceived to help build a non-racial nation in South Africa. It is meant to facilitate communication across the barriers of colour, language and region, while at the same time creating an environment, in which respect for languages other than one’s own would be encouraged.

Among other things this policy also states that:

  • The language(s) of learning and teaching in a public school must be (an) official language(s).

  • The learner must choose the language of teaching upon application for admission to a particular school.

  • Where a school uses the language of learning and teaching chosen by the learner, and where there is a place available in the relevant grade, the school must admit the learner.

Advice for Parents

  • Make sure that your child knows the names of the different languages he/ she speaks.

  • Play games and read books in both languages.

  • Teach your child nursery rhymes and songs in both languages.

  • Tell your child stories in your language. Encourage your child to join in with the story telling.

  • Take your child to concerts, plays and films where they will hear people using your language.

  • Try to find other families who speak the same language.

  • Don’t just focus on the language – encourage the cultural aspects as well.

  • Don’t give up if your child does not seem to want to speak in the other language – the benefits are still there