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
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.
© 2010, Anthea Fraser Gupta. All rights reserved.
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