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Ask Olga! The Emergence of a Granddaughter’s Three Languages



Many events have taken place since the beginning of summer. Our little potential trilingual is at the age of three. With seemingly perfect understanding of at least two languages, Russian and French – the third language, English, is beginning to emerge. All three are competing for dominance – more time spent in France this summer resulted in French gaining the upper hand. Michelle now attends a half-a- day playgroup in English with children from two and a half to five years old.

We are witnessing an explosion in expressive language – she is becoming a chatterbox both at home and at school! Michelle is mixing all the three languages in one ‘pot’, so to speak, treating the ‘original recipe’ creatively, mixing/substituting certain ingredients to serve a set purpose. A chef might use mango instead of apple when mango is more easily accessible. So it is with language, in linguistics it is called code mixing – Michele as many other young multilingual children mixes linguistic ingredients or chooses words that are more easily available and at the same time serve her conversational purpose. This always raises a question whether it is ‘normal’ or requires corrective measures. It might be reassuring to rely on data from similar cases: mixing continues till about the age of five. We know that Michelle is able to differentiate languages and is aware of code mixing – she knows that papa, mama and teacher at preschool name the same things differently. So her mixing is evident only in conversation.

One theory is that mixing happens for the following reasons: a) children use it as a relief strategy – when the necessary ‘ingredient’ is more easily accessible or available in the other language, b) when one of the two languages is dominant and c) when parents are multilingual and use several languages for communication at home. So we watch and as grandparents find ways to perform our linguistic task – to provide exposure to the language we use with Michelle and to supply the missing ‘ingredients’.

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