When reading bilingual parents’ questions on forums and Facebook groups dedicated to bi-/multilingualism, you often get these comments that maybe toddlers are too young to understand that they are using different/several languages, and the parents often wonder if their little one will get confused.
My 3-year-old has recently given me food for thought on the topic of the discovery of her trilingual identity. From my experience with her and her elder sister, I think toddlers might not always be conscious of it and use the “right” language based on circumstances they identify. A bit like a reflex action. However, they will grow to understand bilingualism at toddlerhood or just at the end of it.
Nine months ago, my daughter had a strong language bias for English and her Spanish lagged a little behind, so I decided to support my husband by ceasing to translate Spanish books to English and let her hear me use her dad’s language. It had a very strong impact on her. The first time she heard me read her a bedtime story in Spanish, she stared at me in utter surprise and asked “In Spanish, Mummy? In Spanish?”. Over the following two weeks, she continued expressing her surprise and even protested on a couple of occasions.
Her dad eventually gave suit and also stopped translating English books to Spanish. Her 2 minority languages are now roughly equally balanced (though with still a very slight inclination towards English). She now clearly identifies her English books from her Spanish books and what language to expect to hear from her reader. She has adapted to the change in the language use, and the circumstances she had previously identified as sparking a given language.
Over the past month, my little one has started picking up on people speaking different languages and has fun with it. She knows Mummy and Daddy speak the same language as her (English, Spanish and French), but that with her, Mummy uses English, whilst Daddy uses Spanish. Notwithstanding, over the past month, she has cheekily insisted on a regular basis for me to read Spanish books to her, and her dad English books! It amuses her greatly to see us switch languages.
This Easter, we have my in-laws visiting. Over breakfast one morning, our little one played nearby and probably overheard her granddad marvelling at her being trilingual and generally being a good speaker. A few minutes later, as her granddad joined her to play, our little one asked him “Why do you only speak Spanish?”. Her innocence made us all smile. But I guess it is also part of this process of discovering her multilingual ability and identity.
A few days later, she asked me about what language I used with her Spanish granny and French granny and why. Here again, she seemed to discover they were both monolinguals.
Just like a child develops his or her personality at toddlerhood (after all, what are the “Terrible Twos” for? 😉 ), the child’s bilingual identity seems to follow a similar path. When a very small child, the use of the minority language seems to be a sort of reflex action or habit; just like eating. The child understands the mechanism but does not necessarily think beyond that. It is only as your child asserts his or her personality with likes and dislikes, and observes the world around them with their newly acquired “maturity”, that they rediscover their environment. As a baby, s/he might have eaten food without much thought about it, they just understood that if they ate they would stop feeling hungry. As s/he asserts him/herself, the child suddenly discovers their likes/dislikes, observes other eaters, and so on. With his/her use of languages, it is a similar process. The child will start understanding what s/he likes or dislikes about their languages, and what languages other people use. 😉
To me, this discovery feels like a milestone in building the child’s bilingual identity. Let’s see how this milestone will interact with another important one: the beginning of Majority Language schooling.