Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

Are grammatical errors ok when speaking a second language to a child?


Dear Dr. Gupta,

I am a native English speaker with a passion for German. I studied it in college and lived and worked there after graduating. Dear friends communicate with me in German and I have command of a large expressive vocabulary; however, my grammar, tenses, gender of nouns, etc. are all extremely weak.

My husband is half Filipino and half African-American. He knows little phrases in his mother’s native dialect of Kampampangan; however, rarely uses it with our daughter.

Our language question is this, does it benefit our 10 week old daughter to be consistently exposed to and engaged with in these languages when neither parent speaks them fluently? We speak to her in English and to one another in English; however, I have been trying at least 50% of the time to speak to her in simple German.

Is it a detriment for her to learn a German with grammatical errors, even though we intend to spend summers/vacations there and also have language exchange with the young children of our German friends? Will she easily relearn “proper” German once exposed to it? Basically, are we doing more harm than good if our grammar is weak in a second language that we are speaking to our infant? – Amber

Dear Amber,

You don’t say where you are living but I gather you are living in a place where English is the dominant language. As far as Kampampangan is concerned, your husband isn’t going to be able to teach her this language, but your daughter may find it fun to learn a few expressions (as he did). The two languages your children can learn are English and German.

What you are doing seems to me to be a very good idea. I like the fact that you use both languages to your daughter because that means you are speaking your own main language (English) to her as well as the language that is a foreign language to you but which you love. You have lots of contact with German and German speakers, which means it is likely that your daughter will come across people to whom she has to speak German. As she gets older, try to make sure she plays with some German-speaking children. And next time you are in Germany, buy some picture books.

It doesn’t matter if you make mistakes or that your accent is a foreign accent. Across the world, it is a common experience for parents to speak to children in a language that is not their native language. Children learn languages from everyone they come into social contact with, not just from their parents. How your daughter’s German develops as she gets older will depend on her attitude to German. She may not be very interested in German– no harm will have been done– she will still speak some German even if it is limited and not ‘perfect’. On the other hand, she may be enthusiastic — no harm will have been done– she will then learn more and more German and will develop skills you don’t have (including some you may disapprove of!).

There is a famous book on this very topic. A linguist, passionate about German, decided to speak it to his own children. This is an old book, but well worth reading, and it will encourage you.

Saunders, George. 1988. Bilingual Children from Birth to Teens. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

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Anthea Fraser Gupta is a sociolinguist with an interest in how children learn to talk. She was born into a monolingual environment in Middlesbrough, England, but enjoyed learning about languages from an early age. She gained a B.A. in English Linguistic Studies and Archaeology at the University of Newcastle, then went on to do an M.A. in Linguistics. She left Newcastle in 1975 to work in Singapore, where she encountered a society in which multilingualism is usual and expected. In Singapore nearly all children come to nursery school already able to speak 2 or 3 languages. While lecturing in the linguistics of English at the National University of Singapore, she did a doctoral degree at the University of York, looking at the language acquisition over two years of four Singaporean children who were growing up with four languages. In Singapore, she also married a man from a multilingual family from India. She returned to England in 1996 to the School of English at the University of Leeds, where she taught courses on both English language and bilingualism until her retirement in 2010. Anthea has had experience in a range of multilingual and multicultural societies and families. She has published books and articles on English, especially the language use of children in Singapore, and has also produced a novel for children set in Singapore. She is deeply interested in child development and believes that the most important thing in raising a child is to provide love and stimulation, regardless of what language or languages are learned.

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsBonne Maman   |  Thursday, 21 July 2011 at 3:19 pm

    Boy did this query hit a nerve.

    I can really identify with ‘exhausted from non-native Spanish’s’ situation. I am two years behind her on the non-native path and some days can be tough. It’s a real rollercoaster. Trying to stay one step ahead of your child’s language level and communication requirements just to be able to have what a monolingual or native speaking bilingual parent would consider a simple conversation.

    The point made about eloquency is so so valid.

    I think Dr Gupta’s advice is spot on i.e. keep going and try and get some help to boost language input. For all the doubts and fears non-native parents go through, the truth must surely be that giving your child the gift of an additional language is to be treasured.

    I have mentioned this article in my blog ( http://non-nativebilingualadventure.blogspot.com) so that it can be read by fellow non-native parents who may have missed the original article.

    Thanks for the inspiration and food for thought.

  2. CommentsAllison Riccardi   |  Friday, 27 January 2012 at 8:59 am

    Dear Dr. Gupta,

    Thank you for your reply. It did help me make a few decisions. We are currently still in China, and the Mandarin input is great for our daughter. We took your advice and loaded up on Chinese books. And yes, when we do get back, we will continue to skype often with my in-laws.

    I suppose my first letter was not quite clear, because I am VERY connected with my own roots and the Italian language. However, speaking Italian at home is sometimes awkward since I am currently the only speaker (my husband’s Italian is minimal). Before coming to China, we already had taken our daughter to visit relatives in Sicily and we do skype with them, though not often. After reading your response, I have decided to speak Italian to our daughter when the two of us are alone, and to sing her the Italian songs and rhymes that I learned when I was little. I will continue to speak Mandarin with her when with other Mandarin speakers. She will pick up what she needs to. And of course, I agree that first and foremost should come our mother-daughter relationship.

    I appreciate your advice! It really helped me reflect 🙂


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