The good news with bilingualism is that most human beings actually are bilingual — people who only speak one language are the exception on our planet. Our brain has evolved to be able to function in several languages without it being a problem — quite the contrary! Speaking several languages on a regular basis is an excellent cerebral exercise. It fosters abstract thinking and is even thought to delay the onset of age-related dementia!
The not-so-good news is, a child does not become bilingual with a snap of the fingers. She needs the right environment, the right motivation, as well as time, support and attention. A child growing up in a bilingual environment has twice as much linguistic information to acquire than other children: twice as much vocabulary, twice as many grammatical rules, and other dimensions which it is important to master, such as knowing which language to speak to whom.
That is the reason why bilingual children usually master language later than monolinguals — because they have much more material to internalize, and sometimes in contexts, such as France, which are not necessarily conducive to bilingualism.
The learning context is of paramount importance.
Children very often develop a form of bilingualism that is not quite balanced — which is in no way problematic, provided the imbalance does not grow overmuch.
A child who grows up in France and speaks English with her dad exclusively, for instance, will obviously have fewer opportunities to hear and speak English than French. It is therefore critical for the parents to create as many occasions to hear and speak both languages, as a child cannot be ‘taught’ to become bilingual.
Why do children acquire the language spoken by the people around them?
Because they feel a profound need to communicate with them. Why would they make an additional effort to learn another language if one is enough to be understood? Fortunately enough, whereas adults who want to learn a new language often have to memorize vocabulary lists and dozens of grammar rules, children acquire language more than they learn it: if they get enough exposure to a language, they will simply absorb it — even though not everything will necessarily come naturally.
A child can get frustrated because of that one word they don’t know, or when they discover that a word has no equivalent in the other language; they can get tired, or simply not feel like speaking English to Mommy, who pretends she doesn’t understand French even though she speaks it with Daddy. When that happens, parents shouldn’t lose heart: language acquisition occurs over many years, and bilingualism should not be seen as a chore but as a game for both parents and children — and what a worthwhile game it is!
Attention and exposure are two magic words when it comes to bilingual acquisition.
About the Author:
Charles Brasart is an Associate Professor of linguistics at the Université de Nantes (France), where he works on bilingualism. He is the author of L’essentiel de la grammaire anglaise (2015) from Armand Colin editions et de You Talkin’ To Me? Améliorez votre prononciation de l’anglais américain (2017) from École Polytechnique editions.