There are so many different terms used to describe people who speak more than one language that it can be difficult to understand what it actually means when we say someone is bilingual, multilingual, plurilingual, a polyglot, or a hyperglot.
The term ‘bilingual’ might be the most familiar, describing people who have competence of two languages, but at what point can someone claim this status? Is it an exclusive club that you are born into, growing up speaking two languages fluently, or does anyone who speaks any amount of another language count?
‘Multilingual’ tends to be reserved for those who are born in environments in which more than one language is spoken. In these environments, people may be using 3 or 4 or more languages day-to-day without giving it much thought or considering themselves as a linguist. Whereas perhaps ‘plurilingual’ can be seen as something someone becomes over time through purposeful learning of multiple languages.
Who classifies as a polyglot is also under debate, but is generally considered as someone who chooses to learn languages without having a particular need for them. The minimum number to claim this title is around 5, with hyperglots being around 7, although neither have been formally defined.
The other question is how good you need to be to collect one of these badges, whichever one you’re going for. Some will argue that only fluent speakers qualify, but this mentality often excludes anyone who isn’t multilingual by chance through family or environment. While it is possible to achieve high fluency in a language in different ways, few people can claim to be truly fluent in a second language if they don’t live in that country or use it for work or family.
This begs the question: what is the end goal of speaking a language?
If it only counts if you speak like a native, what does that even mean? Can a native speaker only be someone who was born into that language? The issue of ownership of a language becomes part of the problem too; the Spanish spoken in Peru is different to that spoken in Mexico and that of Spain… so which one is right? How can we hold English learners to ‘native’ standards when they are more likely to use it to communicate with other non-natives and may never set foot in England?
You may feel like you are not good enough, not fluent enough, to add a particular language to your bilingual or multilingual status. But, at the end of the day, how you identify yourself as a speaker of a language is all that really matters. People might try to impose their own definitions of these terms on you, but ultimately languages are personal and the concepts of ‘fluency’ or ‘native-like proficiency’ are arbitrary.
Language is about sharing not just words and grammar, but cultures, ideas and experiences. In an environment such as England, which is already struggling from a lack of motivated and successful language learners, we should be encouraging people to embrace languages in any way they can, rather than imposing rules and regulations on them. We should be inviting them to join the conversation, not excluding them from an elite club which is out of their reach.
So, allez-y and express yourself in all the languages you have and call yourself bilingual, multilingual, plurilingual, polyglot, or anything you like!
Guest blog by Rosanna Lloyd, applied linguistics postgraduate student at the University of Oxford, tutor in French and Spanish, and keen language-learner.
Join co-hosts Cate, Rosanna and Kai on Clubhouse here for #MultilingualMonday discussions at 5.30pm GMT. Topics include ‘what is multilingualism?’ and ‘is the UK really monolingual?’
We don’t often understand the process of learning to talk until we need speech and language therapy. It’s something parents have little information about. We hear a lot about sleeping, eating, and walking, but talking is a bit of a mystery subject. That is, until it goes wrong. Parents might then seek advice from a speech and language therapist like my podcast guest, Weronika Ozpolat. And if your child has more than one language? It’s good to find a speech pathologist who understands how bilingualism works, and how different cultures teach children to speak in different ways.
Let’s talk about talking
What is speech and language therapy?
Let’s start with the basics because I don’t think many of us know (I certainly didn’t!) the difference between a speech problem, a language problem, or a speech delay. What’s a delay and what’s a disorder? What does a speech and language therapist do?
Ronni explains that a language delay is what parents commonly describe as a child being ‘a late talker’. A speech delay is when children are having some difficulty pronouncing certain sounds. A disorder, however, is where the difficulty delays development by more than six months. She explains that it takes a number of years for children to be able to consistently produce a new sound. This is normal. I’ve tried to show this visually in the diagram below. The earlier sounds are the easier, single sounds. The later sounds are clusters and trickier sounds like ‘r’, ‘sh’, ‘th’ and ‘zh’ (as in measure). You can read more about this here in the Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders.
Like with any journey, language-learning has a number of milestones. For parents wishing to see how their child is getting on with talking, it is not helpful to compare their development with another child. Children all develop at their own pace. Ronni suggests looking out for the key milestone at age two years when children are expected to have between fifty and two hundred words. They may have more, but fifty is the expected minimum at age two. Children will also start putting two words together at age two (‘Daddy gone!’ is one I remember my children saying every time he left the room!) Three year olds will be putting three or four words together.
About one in five children start school with speech, language and communication needs. It is pretty common for children to need some support with their speech and language. This is true across all cultures and languages; any child could need some support. If parents feel that their preschooler is not meeting the developmental milestones above, contact your health visitor or GP for a speech and language referral.
The speech and language therapist will do an assessment to gauge the child’s language development. This might involve some playing and talking, and discussion with parents. They will then work out what kind of therapy is most likely to help with your child’s specific needs. There are all sorts of ways of helping speech development, and they will advise parents how to best support the child too.
To correct or not to correct?
Back to ‘normal’ or expected speech development. Young children have a limited range of speech sounds, and often it is only their parents who can understand them! There are also lots of cute ‘mistakes’ that children make, like saying ‘tat’ instead of ‘cat’ (this is called fronting, incidentally). These are nothing to worry about. It’s all part of the process of learning to talk. If they simplify words, like saying ‘nana’ instead of ‘banana’, parents can model the correct language by repeating ‘yes banana’. But it is not helpful to try and force a child to pronounce things correctly if they are not at the right age and stage. With lots of good modelling, they will get there eventually and all in good time.
My five year old still says ‘lellow’ instead of yellow, and is teased mercilessly by his older siblings. They have already forgotten that they did exactly the same thing! They also said ‘ephalent’ instead of ‘elephant’, and ‘psgetti’ instead of ‘spaghetti’. These are really tricky words with multiple syllables, but eventually they got them all in the right order.
Bilingualism and speech delays
It is a common myth that bilingual children are more prone to speech delays. I have talked about this with Katerina Draper and Eowyn Crisfield on previous episodes, and Ronni reaffirms that bilingualism does not cause speech delays. If a child is presenting a speech and language disorder, the speech therapist will look for signs of the disorder in all of the child’s languages. If the delay or disorder is only apparent in, say, English and not Polish, it is more than likely just a normal part of the child’s developmental process.
All speech and language difficulties will affect all children. It doesn’t matter whether they are monolingual, bilingual, multilingual… all children can develop some of these speech and language delays. Bilingualism does not lead to a speech delay.
Ronni Ozpolat on why bilingualism does not cause speech delays on the podcast
I think part of the confusion about language delays and language development is that we only use one word for language in English! In French we helpfully have le langage and la langue, to distinguish between language in general, and individual languages. A language delay/disorder underlies the acquisition of individual languages, so regardless of whether you’re learning one or ten languages, the disorder will appear across them all. If you are hearing impaired, for example, you won’t hear sounds and reproduce them. It doesn’t matter how many languages you are hearing, it’s the hearing that is the cause of the problem not the languages.
Autism and language
Children with a diagnosis of autism can have a diverse range of speech, language and communication issues. Some people might have above-average language skills, learning twenty or more languages, and others may be non-verbal. Autistic children can be raised bilingual. Ronni discusses why it is really important that a child with autism is not deprived of a language that is in their family. Even if a child is non-verbal, that doesn’t mean they do not understand what is being said. As I discussed with Eowyn, bilingualism is not just about speaking a language. Languages are part of our roots, our connections to our heritage, and our emotional bonds with caregivers. This is a really important section of the podcast, I think, as I’ve heard of families being advised not to speak to their autistic child in multiple languages. Has this ever happened to you?
There’s a saying (a rather old-fashioned one, perhaps!) that children should be seen and not heard. In some cultures, adults don’t speak to children at all, leaving it to other children to converse with the under-fives. In some cultures we focus a lot on the ‘naming of objects’ with young children. “Yes, that’s the cat! Oh did you see the fire engine?” And some cultures focus more on the verbs, or the functions of objects, rather than the names of them. There is such diversity in the way we talk to our children, that this will obviously have an effect on their speech development. No one way is better than another. The children all end up talking, regardless of the route taken (unless the adults deprive the child of language input – listen here to learn about that!)
A child who has heard more nouns will learn more names of objects. And, this is the key part, if a child is being assessed by a speech and language therapist who is not aware of cultural differences and practices around language development, they may equate words with nouns. This might then lead to a misdiagnosis, if they think the child doesn’t meet a developmental milestone, but they’ve just been measuring the wrong thing. We make a lot of assumptions based on our own experiences of how we do language. There is more than one way of raising our little talkers! Some culturally nuanced understanding of language development would be a very helpful thing for us to know as we live in increasingly diverse societies. Teachers and speech therapists get little training on this, which is a shame as it’s really interesting and helpful information.
I really enjoyed chatting to Ronni about how children’s language develops, and I’m delighted that she’s joining our ‘little language revolution’, Babel Babies. She will be offering families speech and language therapy appointments, and she specialises in bilingualism. You can read more about her here, and also on her blog Multicultural Motherhood. This is where you will find links to the parenting online courses that she mentions, and also find tons of brilliant ideas for homeschooling.
The term ‘EAL’ gets more airtime in educational circles these days because our world is becoming more super diverse. This means that our schools have more children who are learning English. But does ‘EAL’, which is short for ‘English as an Additional Language’, simply mean a child doesn’t speak English yet? Actually, it is much more nuanced and complicated than that. In the second part of my conversation with EAL specialist Eowyn Crisfield, we talk about how parents and schools can work together to support multilingual learners.
Let’s talk about talking!
What is EAL?
Let’s start with some definitions. When a child has a parent at home who speaks a language other than English, the school assigns that pupil EAL status. It is often used as a catch-all term to describe children who are learners of English. However, just having a parent who speaks another language does not mean a child is an English learner! In fact, the child might only speak English and not the home language.
The designation EAL is hugely misleading and could apply to a child who is an English monolingual or, the complete opposite, a child who speaks no English yet at all. Professor Victoria Murphy, chair of EAL subject association NALDIC and applied linguistics lecturer at the University of Oxford department of education, has called EAL a ‘reckless’ definition in the TES.
What is the impact of starting school on EAL learners?
When EAL pupils start school, this may be the first time they have encountered English, or they may already be bilingual in English and another ‘home’ language. Or they may fall somewhere in between. The impact of starting school is immense. They will have less contact time, and thus input, in their home language once they spend all day in an English-speaking environment. They will also start to notice that they are perhaps different and have a language that other children do not speak. Depending on how this affects their feelings about their home language, this is sometimes when children ask their parents not to speak to them in public in their home language.
Make children partners in language development
The way to support children in fostering a positive self-identity as a multilingual person is to make them partners in their own language journey. Language is not something that is done to them, it is something they actively choose. Without a positive approach to multilingualism in school, it is highly likely that a high-status language like English will swallow up the child’s home language. This is especially true when parents feel discouraged in continuing home language support, or that English is more important. As Eowyn said in part one, English is the ‘Pacman’ of languages because it eats up all the minority languages!
It is important to talk to children from an early age about their languages. This can begin when they are very small by simply talking about how mummy says ‘cheese’ and papa says ‘fromage’ for example. Then as children grow, the conversation around languages grows in an age-appropriate way. This develops the children’s metalinguistic awareness, that is, their understanding about languages. And this awareness, in turn, makes them better at learning languages.
The school environment has a huge impact on pupils’ attitudes and motivation when it comes to languages. If a school reflects the diverse multilingualism of its pupils, they are more likely to feel encouraged and maintain their multilingualism. If a school suppresses the languages of the pupils, they will work towards conforming to the monolingual ‘norm’.
Why does this matter, you might ask? Shouldn’t we focus on teaching them English?
Great question. You will be forgiven for thinking that in order to learn English, children need to spend more time learning English and less time on their home language. It sounds like a simple equation, right? But MORE ENGLISH does not actually support children learning English if it is at the expense of supporting their development in a more dominant or well-established home language.
Imagine a stack of bricks. As the tower gets taller, it requires firmer foundations or the whole thing topples over. Languages are the same. If a child as a strong foundation in their home language, it is a more secure platform for adding further languages on top. However, if you REMOVE a foundation block from the bottom, the entire stack might tumble.
The better their home language is, the better they’ll be at English
Eowyn Crisfield on maintaining home languages
The earlier the better, right?
Erm, not quite. Listen to episode 20 (part one of this conversation with Eowyn) for a fuller analysis, but in a nutshell, this is not as simple as it sounds either. Children at age four are slower to learn a language than they are at age 10. It takes them years longer, in fact, and they will all end up at the same place eventually anyway. This is because young children are still developing their cognitive (thinking) skills. We are worse at processing things when we are young, and get more complex thinking strategies with age.
So if you add in the complication of being a learner of English, it isn’t surprising that sometimes EAL children get misdiagnosed as having special educational needs. EAL does not equal SEND! It takes between 1 and 3 years for children to learn enough English to speak it (ask for pencils, play football, etc). It takes anywhere between 3 and 9 years for them to reach academic fluency, whereby they think and process at an age-appropriate level in English. Incredible, eh?
The younger they are when they start, the longer it will take them to learn the language.
Maintaining home languages is vital
The more developed children are cognitively, the better they are at learning English. Eowyn explains in really clear detail why cognitive development is entirely dependent on having age-appropriate language skills. It is therefore vital that children who do not have an age-appropriate level of English continue to have a rich home-language environment as this scaffolds and supports their learning of English as a second language.
What this means is:
Do not stop speaking and using your home language(s) when children start school!
The strength of the children’s home languages is going to pull them up the hill of learning English and make it easier to acquire English. This message is so important, I have written in big orange letters. Schools, do not advise parents to stop speaking their languages at home. Parents, if you are advised to drop your home language ‘to help your children learn English’ it is incorrect advice and will slow down their progress in English. The same is true, incidentally, if you move abroad and the children are being schooled in a new language, say, Spanish. They’ll need home-language support to access the curriculum in Spanish too, right?
Teacher training in EAL
The PGCE course for teacher training in England is so jam packed, there is no real time to learn about EAL. And since the government does not require it, individual courses have to decide whether or not to include training on EAL, language acquisition or bilingualism for teachers. If they do include a module on it, it means they are sacrificing training on another aspect of teaching. It’s a busy year!
So where can teachers get training on EAL? How can they find out about translanguaging and using home languages as a resource or scaffolding for learning in school?
Take a look at the NALDIC website, the national subject association for EAL. The blog is called EAL Journal (also available as a termly print journal) and is full of practice-related content from real teachers. I wrote a piece for it in January 2020, here. There are regional meetings of EAL specialists and teachers too, and an annual conference that is taking place online on 21st November 2020. You might also enjoy browsing the excellent RiPL network site, where you’ll find summaries of research and lots of practice-based ideas on improving language learning in primary schools.
I hope this blog and the podcast will encourage teachers to have a look at how the school environment reflects the actual languages of their pupils. Rather than taking a superficial approach with ‘food, flags and festivals’, how about discussing how to make translanguaging a reality in your school?
Perhaps your school or colleagues are nervous about letting the children speak all kinds of languages? What on earth are they saying in that language you don’t speak? Honestly, they are probably a) relieved to find someone they can discuss Pokémon with in depth, and b) glad of the mental respite of trying to speak their second (or third, or fourth…) language all day. When adults are immersed in a new language, we are exhausted too, and grateful to find some English speakers occasionally! It’s the same with children.
Eowyn has some brilliant ideas for embedding a truly multilingual approach into your school’s ethos. The best part is that encouraging parents and children to identify with and enjoy celebrating their home languages will really support the children who are learning English. And this multilingual approach has a positive effect on your monolingual English speakers too. Everyone is a linguist!
There’s a wealth of information on the Internet about bilingual education and raising bilingual kids. But for parents or teachers navigating their way through an online search, it often feels overwhelming. Facts can get taken out of context, and statistics from research are quoted as set in stone. However, the science of bilingualism is relatively young and ever-evolving. I discussed raising bilingual children in Episode 5 with psychology lecturer Dr Katerina Draper. In Episode 20, I talk to Eowyn Crisfield in more detail about what parents need to know about bilingual education.
Let’s talk about talking!
There are some prevalent myths around bilingual education that I’ve heard time and again whilst teaching Babel Babies, or chatting to other adults about my work. A couple of favourites are that ‘children are sponges’ and ‘the earlier the better’. Eowyn explains why these statements are problematic. The metaphor of children being ‘sponges’ suggests they are inactive absorbers of languages. Babies are actually conducting scientific experiments with language from early on. They actively pursue knowledge about which contexts to use which languages in, and for what purpose.
It is not quite as simple as saying ‘the earlier the better’ either. Yes, early bilingual education can be effective but success can look different for different families and even for children within the same families. Therefore some understanding of the different processes is really helpful for parents navigating the subject. ‘Bilingual first language acquisition’ is where children learn two languages from before the age of two, and ‘sequential language acquisition’ is where they learn first one language, and then add others to their linguistic repertoire after the age of two. These are different approaches and one isn’t necessarily better than another. A lot depends on the situation and context of each individual family.
Family language planning
This is why Eowyn advocates for parents to understand more of the science of bilingualism than they perhaps imagine they need. Surely bilingualism just happens naturally, in the right context? Well yes, if there are multiple languages used regularly in a child’s home and supported in the wider family and community, as is often the case in South Africa or India for example, children can appear to acquire more than one language effortlessly. If, however, parents are raising a child away from the community where their language is dominant (eg, raising a child with Greek whilst living in London), it’s helpful to have a plan of how to make sure the child hears enough Greek to acquire it.
The family language plan involves parents, family members, teachers and the child(ren), and is a dynamic document. It flows with a family’s needs and goals, rather than being set in stone. Eowyn explains why planning ahead can also be really helpful when facing skeptics, such as family members or health professionals who do not understand bilingual education. It turns parents into advocates for their own children’s multilingualism.
How much is enough?
Coming back to the question of ‘how much language is enough input?’ Eowyn analyses a few key statistics that people often quote as fact. Do children need 20% or 30% input in a language to become bilingual? Parents are perhaps seeking certainty, or quantifiable amounts of language that can be charted, when in fact what matters is the quality of the language a child hears at home.
Quality is more important than quantity.
Eowyn Crisfield on the question of ‘how much’ language a child needs to hear to become bilingual
It’s a fairly repetitive task being a parent, and we often repeat the same basic language to our children: where are your shoes, have you brushed your teeth, it’s time to go, etc. For successful language acquisition, children need to hear a rich and varied amount of language rather than merely the same things over and over again. When there is more than one language to learn, time is divided between the languages. If we only want them to be able to understand and say those basic everyday things, that’s absolutely fine. The key thing is to measure our expectations, whether that is full literacy and spoken fluency or achieving simpler communicative levels of a language, and to plan accordingly. Higher expectations will require higher levels of quality input.
Starting school and bilingualism
‘Should I stop speaking to my child in the home language when they start school?’ is a question we often hear, and sadly many parents have been told to do this by teachers or health professionals. Even speech and language therapists might offer this advice if they do not understand how bilingualism works. It is particularly common in the UK and US where English is a dominant and ‘high status’ language. Eowyn told me she calls English the ‘Pacman’ of languages because it eats up all the minority languages. We will discuss bilingualism in school in more detail in part two. Here is one of our favourite quotes from bilingual education Professor Jim Cummins to whet your appetite!
We are faced with the bizarre scenario of schools successfully transforming fluent speakers of foreign languages into monolingual English speakers, at the same time as they struggle, largely unsuccessfully, to transform English monolingual students into foreign language speakers.
Jim Cummins, (2005). A proposal for action: Strategies for recognising heritage language competence as a learning resource within the mainstream classroom. The Modern Language Journal, 89(4), 585–591.
Cyclical bilingualism, passive bilingualism and semilingualism
Sometimes even the words we use to talk about bilingual education can sound terrifying! It’s no wonder that the topic is shrouded in mystery and parents can feel lost. Eowyn and I talk about some of the terms that we hear more frequently on social media and what they mean. We also discuss which languages parents ‘should’ pass on, and when it’s possibly better to let one language remain passive (so a child understands it but doesn’t answer you using it).
Eowyn Crisfield is an international bilingual educational consultant, senior lecturer on multilingual education at Oxford Brookes University, member of the executive committee for NALDIC (the national subject association for English as an additional language in the UK), and mother of three trilingual children. Her book, Bilingual Families, is being published by Multilingual Matters in early 2021.
Join Eowyn and Cate on the podcast by clicking below, or on iTunes, Spotify and Podbean. Let’s keep the conversation going on Twitter! You can find Eowyn on @4bilingualism and me (Cate) on @langrevolution or @lomo_linguist.