One thing we never really considered when we moved to France was how our children would cope with growing up in a bilingual environment. With hardly a sentence of French between us, let alone any first hand experience of bilingualism, we just assumed that their language skills would develop as normal – but in two languages.
The advantages of being bilingual, in terms of cognitive development are well documented, however, what is not well documented is the language development process/milestones that lead to bilingualism. So when our two year old turned silent … we started to worry.
Endless searches on the web revealed all sorts of information that was predominantly based upon a parental-language relationship (i.e. mum speaking one language, dad speaking another). Our immigrant situation – one language at home, another language outside – did not seem to get a look in. So we decided to take medical advice, and the Doctor referred us to a (monolingual French speaking) speech therapist – who simply shrugged and admitted that she had no idea as to why junior wasn’t talking. [All the same she’d like to see him every week for the next six months!]
What we, and the none-too-bright therapist, didn’t realise was that normal speech development milestones for a monolingual child do not apply for bilingual children. According to an American study, which we finally found on the NCELA website, there is a phase that bilingual children go through:
“When everyone around the child is speaking a different language, there are only two options: to speak the language they already know, or to stop speaking entirely.”
After almost a year of silence our worries are finally over; and now at three years old, our son is finally talking again, and his language skills (in both French and English) are developing by the day. All we have to worry about now is him turning into a smart-alec-clever-clogs before he reaches maturity.
I have extracted some of the more interesting parts of the NCELA study for you to read here (if you’re interested).