Child Bilingualism: Language Mixing vs Code-Switching
When children learn a new language, teachers often tell parents to avoid using their native language at home to allow more immersive learning.
But please, don’t listen to them!
This suggestion is made under the belief that speaking two languages at such an early age, can cause confusion or delay language learning.
There have been several recent studies that indicate that the opposite is true.
In this article, we will learn more about language mixing and code-switching, which are very common phenomena in bilingual children.
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Child Bilingualism and Its Importance in Today’s Globalized World
Research has pointed out that bilingual children show better brain development compared to their monolingual peers.
Learning a new language from an early age improves cognitive functions, memory retention, critical thinking, creativity, etc. Kids who learn a new language are also, generally, more well-behaved and overall have a brighter future.
In a globalized world, the benefits of bilingualism are many!
Experts argue that bilingual citizens empathize more with their surroundings and have more tolerance toward others. In short, speaking a second language can change our community! What an amazing superpower!
In addition, bilingual people have access to more music, tv shows, movies, and even video games; art will help them see the world differently and from unique and different perspectives.
Additionally, it’s very common for bilingual children to code-switch or mix both languages when they speak, especially when both languages are part of their daily lives at home or school.
According to psychologists Roberto Heredia and Jeanette Altarriba, we can find the origin of this complex phenomenon in the functionality and grammar rules of each language.
Later on, in this article, we will explain why children mix languages, and what are their implications in the development of languages in general.
But first, let’s start with some definitions.
Language Mixing and Code-Switching
As parents of bilingual children, you’ll soon realize that as your kids learn a new language, everyone at home will naturally come up with ways to help promote language learning.
You will also realize that language mixing is more common than you think. So fear not!
But, wait a minute, what is language mixing?
Though this term doesn’t have an official definition, it is often described as a “communication phenomenon” where two languages are used as one.
Think about Spanglish or Creole. At the first, people go back and forth between English and Spanish. Creole, on the other hand, is an official language, but since it has its roots in French, Creole speakers use many French words.
But let’s move on.
Lenore Angberg, the author of “Raising Children Bilingually: The Preschool Years” wrote the following about it: “Language mixing refers to the young child’s mixing of both languages within the same utterance before the child is aware of having two languages in its environment.”
Lenore describes that children do this unconsciously and that children use it regardless if the other person knows both languages.
Oops, we better catch up with them, then!
To put it simply, children use all the words they have to express their needs.
Imagine if your kids learn animal names in Spanish in class. Then they might say something like, “Where is the gato, mommy?”
Get it? They replaced “cat” with the Spanish word they just learned. And they do it this quickly in their minds. It’s just the word that made its way to their lips.
But get ready. There is another phenomenon called “Code Switch Language.”
The Oxford Language Dictionary defines it as: “The practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation.”
This change is made based on the social context or the type of conversation that occurs at that moment.
It happens when children, or adults, alternate between two languages. Not just one word or phrase, but entire sentences. Children often do it. They start a sentence in one language and finish it in another.
According to the booklet Code Switching: Why it Matters and How to Respond, when children perform this action, they use the grammatical principles and functionality of both languages.
This means that their brains have learned to distinguish both languages!
It’s a common occurrence, so don’t worry if your kids talk this way.
We must mention that when a child’s code switches, adults should listen carefully, observe how they express themselves, encourage them to continue speaking, and, above all, answer them only in one language.
Only in one language?
Yes. Because your kid might not know the same words you know. If they’re learning Spanish, they might be unfamiliar with the Spanish words you know. So keep it simple. Keep it in English.
Here’s an example of code-switching:
“Yesterday my dog escaped from home, y mi papá fue a buscarlo.”
“Yesterday my dog escaped from home, and dad went looking for him.”
In this case, you can encourage your kid by asking the following questions:
- And how did you feel?
- How did your dog escape?
Benefits, Drawbacks, and Implications of Language Mixing and Code-Switching
A study carried out in Namibia’s Sibbinda Circuit concluded that children who mix languages or code-switch can understand more easily what they’re learning.
The students queried for this study showed more interest in the lessons, were able to connect words with their meanings more easily, and showed a better understanding of the lessons.
In addition, these actions have a positive impact on teachers, since they can use it to their advantage, and help low-performing students improve their learning skills.
This study also found that code-switching helps teachers explain the grammar of the new language.
In general, we see that these resources are positive.
But it’s also important to know when to use them. The National Center on Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness recommends the use of language mixing and code-switching in very particular situations, such as the following:
- To improve the relationship you have with your kids
- To encourage children to try new things and not be scared when completing a difficult assignment
- To have kids be more involved in the classroom
A very common mistake is to say the same sentence in two languages. This happens when we say a sentence in one language, and then repeat it in the second language.
This doesn’t help children’s language development.
What happens is that they only take the information from the language they know best and ignore the second one. It’s always better to mix!
A study conducted by professionals at Concordia University, in Vancouver, shows that if parents mix languages in front of their kids, they might affect their children’s comprehension of both languages.
This happens because the more language mixing occurs, the harder it is for children to learn new words. Again, the words you know might be unfamiliar to them. So, be careful.
However, experts emphasize that bilingual environments do not affect children’s learning. We repeat, “do not affect children’s learning.”
Byers-Heinlein states that: “Even if exposure to language mixing is initially challenging for vocabulary acquisition, it likely has benefits over the long term.”
So, keep at it!
Importance of Supporting Children’s Bilingualism
As we mentioned at the beginning, speaking a second language activates our children’s brains and improves their cognitive connections.
That is why you must encourage your children to learn a new language from an early age.
A better understanding of the society that surrounds them, more extensive communication with family or friends, open-mindedness, the chance to have a better future and a brighter professional career… These are just some of the benefits of being bilingual.
Help your children enter the world of bilingualism with a free trial class with us at Homeschool Spanish Academy.
Practical Tips: How to Support Bilingual Children in Language Mixing and Code-Switching
Now that you know the benefits and difficulties of language mixing and code-switching, we want to give you some tips to help your children become bilingual speakers.
- Do not restrict the use of language mixing, as this helps them express what they want to say.
- Respond positively to code-switching by letting them express the whole idea and then answering in a single language.
- Remember that children copy what they see, so teach them using examples.
- Give your children the opportunity to look for other words or phrases to express themselves.
- Repeat what they say as a question, and then add the following: “Is this what you meant to say?”
- If your children say something grammatically incorrect, correct them. After hearing the right version of what they said, they’ll see their errors and will be able to fix them by themselves.
- Read with them! Plan reading nights. Eventually, they’ll read books in both languages.
- Come up with fun activities. You can walk in the park with them, and describe what you see using the language you use at home, but also let them use language mixing or code-switching, if necessary.
Embrace Bilingualism and Support Your Children’s Language Development
Encouraging your children to learn a second language will help them in their personal, academic, and professional development.
It is extremely important that as parents we continue to learn more about language mixing and code-switching, to know how to guide our kids
While it’s good to speak both languages at home, your children must also know that they must speak with monolingual people.
This will motivate them to use code-switching less.
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