Native Language @ ISB

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Ask Olga! How Important is Linguistic Balance?



People who think seriously about raising multilingual children often worry about maintaining linguistic balance. Indeed, books, articles, blogs and parents’ pride in their mother tongue compel us to strive for balanced bi- or multilingualism. Balanced development of multiple languages is a worthwhile goal, and all our efforts to reach it should be praised. Yet, how attainable is it, even when the child is exposed to two or more languages from birth?

We often become upset when children ‘get stuck’ searching for a word in their mother tongue and substituting it for a word from another language; or, when children mispronounce words, misuse them or use expressions that are ‘direct translations’ from foreign expressions. Our two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter is probably still far away from this stage; we know she is just a toddler, and her ‘mistakes’ or ‘inventions’ are mostly a source of fun rather than worry. Quite soon, though, the time will come when we begin to place higher expectations on her, wanting to see the results of our efforts to create a balanced multilingual.

Being grandparents and not first-timers in this endeavor, we are probably more understanding and patient. Experience has taught us that ‘balance’ is an idealistic goal, and real life consists of deviations and approximations of various degrees. No matter how thoroughly we create the environment stimulating the development of multiple languages, there are always conditions beyond our control. The place where our child lives at any given moment, the child’s playmates, the language of schooling, the status of the language, the purposes of its use – all of these factors and more will continue to tip the linguistic balance throughout the child’s life. Our granddaughter has started attending a nursery in English – now that she is immersed in daily all-English activities with English-speaking peers and teachers, even before her Russian and French become fully developed, English will ‘compete’ for dominance. As a result, more than ever, we feel how very important it is to be creative in supporting her home languages.

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