The Rise of the Dominant Language

multilingualkidsRecently, my son spoke these words to my husband, while communicating an injury incurred by aggressively chasing bubbles at our local children’s gym:

Apo (아파 – ‘It hurts’ – Korean). Düştü (fell – Turkish). At gym,” he said while pointing at his foot.

In my last post I covered early intervention and speech therapy for my two-year-old son, and how we tried and then later stopped using speech therapy. It is now almost a year later, and the developments have been both great and interesting in how they’ve developed with each language. Where he has made leaps in English, he has taken steps in Turkish. With some exposure to Korean, he has a few expressions and songs under his belt.

Whether introduction to multiple languages as an infant causes speech delay is an issue that has been brought up several times on this blog. While a commonly held belief in the past, linguists have since agreed that multiple languages in the home does not cause speech delays in children, or at least not always.

In 1999, the American Academy of Family Physicians went by this notion: “A bilingual home environment may cause a temporary delay in the onset of both languages. The bilingual child’s comprehension of the two languages is normal for a child of the same age, however, and the child usually becomes proficient in both languages before the age of five years.”

However, today it has been acknowledged that children can and often do meet their speech milestones like their peers, and in more than one language.

While no longer followed, that guideline set by the AAFP in 1999 would have fit our situation, although we don’t really know what caused my son’s speech delay. The age of two came and went and he only had a handful of words in each language, which set alarm bells off for everyone who evaluated him and thus caused a panic at home. Now approaching his third birthday, he may be slightly behind some of his peers but has narrowed the gap significantly — in English.

We’ve been thrilled that his expressive language has progressed so much, adding lots of new words to his vocabulary each day, and speaking in sentences (or partial sentences). But his Turkish has progressed slower, with far less exposure than English. His father and I communicate in English, at preschool and with my parents English is used (with Korean peppered in there from my mother) — Turkish is only used during conversations with Dad, or “Baba.” While he may speak in sentences and phrases in English, he is just starting to use verbs in Turkish. Even while speaking with his father, he uses English to fill in the sentences where he doesn’t have the right Turkish word. On the occasion when he mixes the three languages together, that just tickles me.

The comprehension is there as he responds to my husband’s questions in Turkish — he just does it in English. As was noted in this blog from a parent living in Japan where English was the secondary language, the regular use of a dominant language to inquisitions in another language generally occurs because there is not a “need” to communicate. The parent understands both languages so the child can answer in the dominant language. Even with my son’s speech delay, a tool we took from speech therapy to encourage speech was “withholding” to create a greater need for expressive language (such as pausing to retrieve a drink or food when a child points to the refrigerator, even if the desire is understood).

This theory will be tested soon as next month his Turkish grandmother will come to meet the new baby girl who joined our family in August. As his baba anne (Turkish – grandmother on father’s side) doesn’t understand English and will be looking out for him, we’ll see if this gives a jolt to his secondary language acquisition.

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