During my webinars I often hear participants say things that reveal their unconscious biases about language learning. For example, a Polish mother once said to me “I know that my children’s mother tongue will be Dutch, but I’ll try my best to teach them Polish…”
In fact, there was no reason why these children shouldn’t have two mother tongues: Dutch and Polish. It takes time to weed out these limiting ideas but if parents do so, they will see the impact on their children’s language learning process. Understanding the synergy between different languages also provides immunity against similar negative thoughts creeping into our minds again. Of course, this sometimes requires open forums like my webinars, where these ideas can be discussed. For me, it is much easier to help parents if I know what unconscious biases they have.
Despite the fact that, fortunately, the perception of multilingualism has changed positively in recent decades, traces of old misunderstandings still linger. We can see an example of this in the Polish mother’s statement about her children. Of course, this should not be surprising, since the literature on the subject is not free from expressions that imply something that does not necessarily correspond to reality, or better said, the expression may be accurate at a specific moment, but not at every point in the process.
An example of this is the term “balanced bilingualism”, which means that someone speaks two or more languages equally well. We come across this balanced adjective much more often in connection with bilingualism than with multilingualism, partly due to alliteration. The combination of the b sounds at the beginning of the words contributes to how widely the term is used. The fact is that the term “balanced multilingual” sounds much less convincing and this seems to cast a shadow on multilinguals from the outset, even though it is possible to speak several languages at a high and balanced level.
In actual fact, the question of balance actually arises less often between two languages, since it is really easier to balance two than more than two. However, the term ‘balanced bilingualism’ is still the most popular one.
I can assure you that multilingual children don’t need to develop all their languages at the same pace and not even the development of one language will be free from oscillations, despite linear language learning being suggested by “experts” who simplistically throw around percentages, estimating exactly how much use a language needs to survive. It is striking that in articles promoting this, you can find figures such as 50-50% or 30-30-30%, which may seem logical at first glance. However, they do not give an answer to the question of what to do with four, five or even more L1 languages? Nor do they answer the question of why, if 30% is enough in one case, 70-30% is not acceptable? I could list more counter-arguments, because life is far from being logical and does not work so rigidly, and the language learning process is not like that and does not require parallelism, but actually offers many different paths.
Where balance is essential, however, is a balanced relationship between cohabitants and speakers of different languages. This is so that everyone is able to use their own language with the child. This also seems logical but it is very difficult when not everyone understands each other’s language. However, with babies or very young children, environments tend to be more tolerant; everyone is able to use their mother tongue. As children grow up, this tolerance decreases because everybody wants to understand what is being said. How much can be said to a child in one language, without having to translate it for the other parent, is decided by the family members. Also, families need to decide what form this translation will take. For example, you can easily summarize conversations or what a child just said for somebody else. But each family has to decide that for themselves.
The balance between the languages used by the family can take many forms. When we spoke about this in a webinar, a father living in England was so encouraged by the conversations that he asked his English-speaking wife from the Philippines to also speak Tagalog with their children. Their common language remained English, but in addition to that, at the end of the webinar both parents started to feel comfortable using a language that the other did not understand. This seemed more attractive to them than their previous agreement where the mother would stick to the common language, English, and only the father would speak a language that his wife did not understand. This kind of balance has a stimulating effect on both parents. Moreover, the real winner of this is their little son.