I have a nephew, Muhammad Al-Fateh is his name. My sister’s first child, at the point of writing now nine years old. Back when he was 4 to 5 years old, due to the constant code-switching of Malay and English, he developed a rather unique and spontaneous bilingual gesture in an utterance of “Apa that?”, a mixture of “What is that?” and “Apa itu?”.
During the time we encountered this breakthrough in his language development, I was excited. But when I told some of my friends, they said that exposing too much of different languages can make the child get confused and delay their speech. Therefore, exposure to other languages must be hindered.
Each time I come across a similar cases of people not wanting to speak more than one language to their children, I would cite what has been said by Michael F. Roizen, M.D & Mehmet C. Oz, M.D in their magnum opus “You Raising Your Child”:
“It’s interesting to see how language works in bilingual families. If Mom speaks Spanish, say, and Dad speaks English, a child will answer his father in English and his mother in Spanish, even when those particular parents are speaking different languages than they normally do. Some bilingual kids mix the languages early on, and sometimes expressive language (what they say) is slightly delayed. But very quickly, those delays work themselves out, and when a child starts speaking in both languages, he will do so in full sentences that are contextually accurate and age appropriate.”
The key to nurturing a bilingual baby, is by parents conversing bilingually. Meaning that, if you want your child to be bilingual, you have to master several languages yourself and apply it when you are talking to your child.
Dismissing the “Confusion” Claim
The claim that bilingualism leads to confusion, causing children to mix between languages and will never be competent in either.
One fact is clear, young bilingual children mix between language not because they are confused, be in mind, they are in the process of learning. This is a natural course in learning two languages. Do you remember the time when you started walking, did you one day magically stood up on both of your feet and started walking? Or you went through the process of creeping, then crawling, then standing, then walking wobbly, then running? The same goes to learning a language. The first steps are the hardest both in walking and speaking.
But as the children’s brain continue to mature, bilingual children will be more efficient in making distinctions between language A and language B. Some children will code-switch a lot, while others not so much or not at all.
Even adult bilinguals mix their languages at times, how would they react if someone told them that they are “confused,” so why is it different with children?
It is true that the road to bilingualism is a tiring exercise. Parents need to be equipped with sheer dedicatation and everlasting motivation to keep the rigorous exercise of parent-child multiligualism conversation is being practiced from you wake up till you sleep.
The book I am currently heavily citing is “7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child” by Naomi Steiner MD, Susan L. Hayes and Steven Parker, MD. This book has been really helpful in my goal to raising bilingual children. I am like you, experimenting as I go along the journey of fatherhood and parenthood.
If you are serious about bilingualism, then this one concept introduced in this book might be very intriguing. This concept is One Parent One Language (OPOL). You have to decide what language you and your spouse will use. I speak English to my children while my wife speaks Malay.
In making bilingualism a success, you have to strictly adhere to the basic concept of OPOL that is “a clearly identifiable person (or group of people) who always speak to the child in the same language.” This is to ensure frequency and consistency. The book deals in detail about the concept, I am merely supplying the important understanding.
For my case, I didn’t speak English to my first son since his birth, but when he was two years old, I began switching to Malay to only English. This is because there are many variations of OPOL, either you speak language A and your wife speaks language B from birth, or after a certain period of time, say two years, from both parents speaking a single language, one parent switches to a new language. This is because, the child can migrate the existing knowledge he has in language A to language B.
I am happy to see that, at the point of writing, my son is 2 years 9 months, he can identify “shoe” and “kasut”, “hilang” and “gone”, “hungry” and “lapar” interchangeably. He can understand simple sentences and orders like “Switch off the TV”, “Put it on the table”, “Close your eyes” and others. He sometimes code-switches for example “Where is Ummi?”, he replies “Dah gone dah.”
Set Realistic Goals
This book reminds its readers again and again to set realistic goals. Prior to reading this book, numerous times I have reaching the point of giving up as in my family, the only person conversing a foreign language is myself, occasionally my mother to her grandchildren but only when we go back to kampung during Eid or holiday. My wife’s family and my children’s care taker all converse in Malay.
We cannot expect our children to have near-native proficiency in a foreign language if their exposure to that language is limited. They more exposure they get, the more proficient they are. Meaning that, we need to be always enthusiastic and vigorous. My son looks very comfortable with Malay, whenever I speak English with him, he looks a bit less interested, he likes to react “Abang Long mengantuk”, but that to me is all the obstacles I need to overcome.
Children may not know it now, but they will appreciate
when they grow up with the ability to converse in multiple languages.
 Roizen, M. F. (2015). You raising your child: The owner’s manual from first breath to first grade.
 Steiner, N., Hayes, S. L., & Parker, S. (2009). 7 steps to raising a bilingual child. New York: AMACOM, American Management Association.