Wednesday 10 January 2018

Language Mixing in Young Bilinguals - Why They Do It and What It Means

I often get asked if it is a problem for bilingual child to mix languages when they are speaking. Parents are worried that their child may be confused because they are not keeping the languages separate. They may worry that their child does not know that these languages are different, when they should speak each language and to whom. Young children mix languages a lot, but is this really a problem?

Children do not realise the languages are separate until they are 3-4 years old

When a young child learns two or more languages simultaneously, they acquire them in the same way a monolingual child acquires one language. This means they go through the same stages of language acquisition as a monolingual child. They start by babbling and cooing and then begin to say words. However, you will notice a few differences. When a simultaneous bilingual child starts to produce words, they may blend parts of words from each language together to make word blends. Then, between the ages of two and three years old when they start to produce short phrases, you may notice them mixing the languages together.

Why do they do this? Well, when children are very young, they do not realise that the languages are separate. This is because they are acquiring the languages as a single language system. This is the first stage of simultaneous bilingual language acquisition. Children believe that all the sounds they are hearing belong to one system of communication and, therefore, start to mix the languages as they acquire them.

The second stage of simultaneous bilingual language acquisition begins when the child starts to separate the languages and is usually at three or four years of age. Therefore, do not be alarmed if your bilingual toddler is mixing languages as it is a completely normal part of the bilingual language acquisition process. The following chart shows the stages of language acquisition for bilingual children.

Codemixing and codeswitching

As your bilingual child gets older, you may notice that they are continuing to mix the languages. This is because older children and adults mix languages too! However, they are doing it in different ways and for different reasons. In fact, there are different types of mixing that can occur. The first type is codeswitching. This occurs when the switches occur after each phrase. For example, if you speak one phrase in French and then one phrase in Spanish.

The second type of mixing is codemixing. This is when you change languages within a phrase. For example. inserting an English word into a Polish phrase. This is actually a sign of fluency as you need to know the languages very well in order to know when to make these switches.

Reasons for language mixing

Bilinguals often mix languages when they are speaking and as your child gets older, you may notice them doing it at specific times. They may do this for a number of reasons. Here are some of them. 

  1. Switching when speaking to certain people. For example, a child may always speak to their grandmother in a certain language so if their grandmother is in the room, this language will be used. 
  2. A switch may occur when the child does not know the word in one of the languages so they switch to the other language. 
  3. Switching as a way of emphasising something. In this case, switching to the other language will get your attention. 
  4. Different languages may be used to speak about different topics. Therefore, when these topics are discussed, you switch to that specific language. For example, the topic of school or education may always be spoken about in English, perhaps this is the language of tuition at school, therefore, when speaking about school you will use this language. 

Codeswitching and codemixing are signs of fluency

As you can see, there are many reasons why codeswitching and codemixing occur. Furthermore, there are rules which govern it's occurrence. You cannot just switch wherever you would like, nor would you want to. You must switch in places that the grammatical system of the language allows. For example, when mixing English and Turkish, you cannot say, 'I am drink-iyorum tea' but you can say 'I am drinking ├žay'.

To codeswitch you need to know the languages extremely well. Therefore, contrary to popular thought, codeswitching and codemixing are signs of fluency in the languages.

Is language mixing a problem?

You now know that mixing languages is not a problem for young bilinguals or older bilinguals. It occurs as part of bilingual language acquisition, as well as later on, as a natural occurrence and is a sign of fluency.

If you are bilingual yourself, have a think about the ways you mix the languages when you speak.


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