One Person One Language and other theories that bug me

I may not have mentioned before, but Big Boy is behind in his expressive language skills: he has good vocabulary for his age, but has difficulty accessing it while speaking, and has trouble using proper verb tenses, sentence structure etc. So we are on a year long waiting list for speech therapy, and looking for other avenues for help.

Monday night I went to a parents’ information meeting at our local CLSC in orthophonie (speech therapy in French), and it was totally great. They are offering a set of three parental training sessions, a speech evaluation for the child, and a possible block of 5 multi-child therapy sessions to get him up to par. Way more than what I expected from local free interventions.

Everything looked totally great, except they had a two page insert on bilingualism. Now it was written in large block letters: “One Language, One Context”, which is an outshoot of the idea “One parent, one language”. I personally have always wondered however that can work: I mean at family dinner, how do the parents speak to eachother? Do they each need to know the other’s language? Does Parent A speak Language A both to Child and to Parent B? and then does Parent B respond in Language B (so the conversation is half in one language and half in the other)? In that case, how can the child ever see modelled a proper question and response set up in either language? And is the Child supposed to have Parent B responding to ParentA/LanguageA in Language B, but supposed to resond to ParentA/LanguageA in LanguageA? It all seems rather artificial and wonky. And what if both parents speak English for instance, but only one parent speaks fluent Chinese? Does the monolingual parent just sit and nod and smile while the other parent and child have a conversation at the meal, grocery store or amusement park?

Personally, I don’t have this issue, since I am a single parent. According to this “One parent One language” doctrine, I would have to raise a child in only one language, even if I am bilingual or more myself.

Welcome to the “One language, one context” expansion of the theory. We do this somewhat, in that I tend to speak English at home, and speak French with neighbors and out shopping etc… it is just more acceptable to speak French in public in Quebec.

But does that mean I never read French books inside the house? Never put on French music or introduce French words at home? And what if I want to get my son’s attention outside the home, and know he knows the English words but not the French for a given situation? “Watch OUT! A TRUCK is COMING!” he might understand at the start, but not “ATTENTION! Un camion s’en vient!”… and the risk of him not understanding or not obeying in French is great.

It also means that language is restricted to that occasion. For instance if cooking is always done at home in English, and sports always done at daycare in French… how will he have the vocabulary to speak about either in the other part of his day? Will he be forbidden to say “j’ai joué au ballon !” at home? And if he is, how will I give him the english words for that? How will he tell the daycare what he cooked at home, and that he beat the eggs and creamed the butter if he doesn’t get French vocab for me about those things at home, so he can go to daycare and say them? He will only know in English, and if they don’t speak English, he is just stuck explaining.

And then let’s add Mandarin on top of that. We have only an hour or two a week that we are with a native speaker. And that time is NOT 100% immersion. I need to ask questions, explain things etc and get translations. Do YOU know what hawthorne is in Mandarin? I only did after looking up in a bilingual dictionary. Anyways, the rest of the time, I am learning Mandarin along with my son. So we put it into our activities. Naming body parts while tickling or bathing. Naming food while eating, cooking or shopping. Using what little language we know while playing hide and seek in the park or at bedtime.

I personally don’t have the vocabulary or sentence structure to do “a context” with him in Mandarin. We would be stuck with a few basic phrases, and a lot of gesticulating. I can say “Wo zhao ni! Zhao bu dao! Wo kan bu jian ni! Ahh ahh! Wo kan jian ni! Wo zhao dao ni! Wo zhua ni! ahah!!!” (I am looking for you. I look but don’t find! I look but can’t see you! aaaahh, I see you! I found you! I catch you! ahah!) But I can’t say, “We can play for ten more minutes before we have to leave for home. We need to have lunch so we can get to the doctor’s afterwards”.

So does that mean we can’t do the “context” only in Mandarin so we should leave it? Or is context so restricted we can call “hide and seek” a context?

Frankly, I think that any adding to his or my vocabulary or sentence structure in any language is a plus. Speaking what one can speak in that particular language without making too many mistakes, and correcting oneself. Using whatever is needed to be understood, including gestures and multiple languages. If they can put Chinese words in Ni Hao Kailan, and Spanish words into English Dora episodes and it is a good thing, then adding French words into English or Mandarin words into English in all contexts can not be totally wrong.

No, he may not grow up to be a native mandarin or french speaker. But he might be a passable speaker. I consider myself bilingual in English and French, and certainly didn’t get enough French to even have a conversation until I was about 20 years old. Certainly being immersed in a French only environment helped a lot, ONCE I had enough basis so that it didn’t just sound like gobbledy gook that went over my head. The rest of the time I learned in a bilingual environment, whether in the French classroom or the anglophone university cafeteria where most students were francophone.

I say, increase the amount of language and foreign language exposure as much as possible, in as many media and contexts as possible. Language needs to be wellrounded and multifaceted to be useful. Blechhh on restrictive prescriptions. The important thing is to have fun and learn learn learn.

ps, no, the language delay doesn’t come from multilingualism: if a child has a learning disability in one language they will have it in one, two or ten languages…


8 responses to “One Person One Language and other theories that bug me

  1. When I was growing up, my parents spoke Cantonese in the home. English was their second language. They were both born in the USA in 1922. Chinese was their first language and English was taught to them in the schools they attended in San Francisco. As a child . I’m sure they spoke to me in Chinese , but after I started school , I only spoke English. My parents would speak to me , and I would respond in English. I could understand what they were saying to me but was unable to speak Chinese back to them. I just never got the practice in producing the sounds. To this day, my mom will speak to me alternating from Chinese to English without thought and I respond to her in English…I do know how to order my favorite Chinese food though in Chinese..:)

    • That’s interesting… Big Boy has been at that stage with French for about a year and a half now, indicating he understood the French, as he always replied with correct answers in English. Now after a year in daycare 2-3 days per week he is starting to ask questions, and respond in French instead of English. Perhaps in a Cantonese only environment where your English wasn’t understood, you’d surprise yourself by being able to form those words you understand after a few days or weeks?!!

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  2. My dad was primarily French and my mom was primarily English and we all grew up bilingual. My dad is now extremely fluent in English and mom can carry on a conversation in French. I remember that dinner time (2 hours) was all French but the rest of the time it was whatever. We chose to speak English but understood everything my dad said in French. I don’t know how we all got to that point, though. I’ve been trying to figure it out as I teach my daughter French.

    Sorry this was so rambling, I’m just so excited that you’re writing again!

  3. I really like this thoughtful blog, Leanne.

    What I remember from the books I edited on bilingualism & from my early childhood training is that it is quite typical for children growing up with more than one language to be slower in expressive language. As I remember it, it’s not exactly a “delay” in the sense that if they are compared to other kids growing up in multilingual contexts, they are all maturing at more or less the same rate. It’s only when they are compared to kids growing up in monolingual contexts that they look “delayed”—so it’s not comparing apples to apples.

    (Which isn’t to say that some of those kids might not also have actual learning disabilities or delays, but more that you can’t really tell until some of the dust has settled.)

    This has to do with the brain physically building more pathways to accommodate/connect the different languages/cultural contexts. Because different languages represent more than different phonologies for the same thing—they are actually different ways of thinking and the brain needs to develop the physical structures to enable the child to use them more or less simultaneously. (If growing up truly multilingual, where s/he is thinking in either/both languages.)

    Multilingual kids develop expressive skills more slowly, but catch up quickly within a couple of years, if I remember my reading accurately.

    • Thanks Beth, for the thoughtful comment. I’ll write a whole post about this, but yes, we have taken into consideration the cleft palate, the adoption, changing languages at 22 mos old, being a boy, and multilingualism. All of them have been more than 2 years ago, and are considered by the speech therapist at Montreal Children’s Hospital cleft clinic to no longer be excuses for the delay, which is why we suspect a disorder in morphosyntax learning. But yes, you are right, children learning more than one language tend to delay somewhat in expressive speech and then catch up (which is actually surpass, since they have not one language but two or three).

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  4. I agree I don’t like the method either. I love learning as a family!
    This post hit a chord with me for two reasons, one my little brother(who is adorable) had speech delays and had to be in speech therapy for years! He now has a beautifull wife, and they have learned Russian and are Russian advocates in their area!
    My oldest son took forever to read and everyone always had to suggest it was language and we should wait till he is reading well to teach him Mandarin. He would hear these well meaning comments and feel bad! Turns out he needed glasses! Now at 8 he is reading 1 or 2 chapter books a week!
    Ni xin ku le! 😉

  5. I agree, the more languages the better. Apart from the individual benefits from knowing a second language can be societal as well, especially in the U.S. with the increasing animus towards spanish speaking immigrants. If you are interested, here it the link to the more detailed story:

  6. My husband was born in the Philippines but came here as an infant. His parents spoke Tagalog to each other and other family members, but spoke English to him and his younger brothers. They all ended up like Richard in the first comment, able to understand anything that was said in Tagalog, but only able to answer in English. My daughter doesn’t speak or understand Tagalog at all, even though she’s heard it at her grandparents’ house all her life. My hope is that if she ever decides to learn, having heard it spoken so much will at least give her some sort of basis to learn from.

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