Food for thought – How a child discovers his or her bilingual identity

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.

7 Comments

  1. This is really interesting. My daughter is clearly identifying her main languages Spanish and English at 2.5. She seems to mistake French for English as French is only introduced through songs and her English is much weaker than her Spanish as we so minority language at home.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ha! I love how she is surprised at her grandparents’ monolingualism! So sweet. My oldest is 4 and I love that he never challenges us on why we speak different languages. It’s so normal to him. I grew up monolingual too and can’t help but think how much richer it would have been had my mum or grandmother decided to pass on her mother tongue to me (Dutch).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is so wonderful that he never challenges it, Audrey! :). It is such a beautiful illustration of #multilingualisnormal 🙂 What languages do you speak in your home?
      I agree with you that 2 or more languages in childhood makes the latter richer :). Have you eventually learnt Dutch as an adult?

      Like

      1. We speak English and Italian at home. We live in Mallorca, Spain so already children are normally bilingual with Catalan and Spanish. We have many friends who speak different languages so it’s the norm.
        I haven’t yet learnt Dutch but I think one day I will try. We have a Dutch friend here who sometimes speaks a little bit of Dutch to the kids, it’s sweet as it reminds me of my grandmother.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Definitely #multilingualisnormal then! 😉
        A new language to learn: what a great project! I’d definitely like to do that when my kids are a little older and I have more time to concentrate on that. And why not, have them learn with me if they are curious. 🙂
        Wishing you a lovely day under the Mallorquín sunshine. 😉

        Like

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