Did you know that a child understands up to five times what they can say? Researchers proved this by examining 18-month-old children, demonstrating that a small child who uses 50 words understands around 250 expressions.
This experiment was conducted with monolingual children, and in the case of multilingual children, it is not worth thinking of the number itself as authoritative, but it is worth emphasizing the ratio. Of course, empirically, every parent who speaks languages other than their mother tongue has experienced firsthand that there is quite a difference between active and passive vocabulary in their second language.
Returning to our child, why is it interesting to emphasize this huge difference between what they can say and what they can understand? If we consider that we can help the development of their vocabulary if we use language slightly above their current level, then we can see why it is important to estimate their passive vocabulary.
In my workshops, when I ask participants to guess this ratio, I usually hear very different estimates. Anyone who does not know the statistics has only one way to answer such a question, and that is by trusting their children’s knowledge.
If you found that this number was higher than you originally thought, it’s time to reevaluate your communication strategies. After all, if you try to talk to your child too simply, you deprive them of the opportunity to learn.
In other cases, I have also seen that in some specific situations, the unwritten rule that parents should follow, that when we are teaching, we should challenge children by introducing concepts slightly above their current level, gets forgotten. I’ll give you an example.
A mother once asked me about sign language. Learning sign language has many advantages, for example, the fact that children begin to communicate more quickly on a conceptual level using it, since it is easier for babies to indicate an expression with hand gestures than to articulate the appropriate sound. But I had the feeling that her question was really about something else, so I asked for more detail. From her explanation, it became clear that her little daughter, who was approaching the age of one, was gesticulating very skillfully, and this made her think that if she continued communicating in a non-verbal way, it would be useful for her daughter’s development.
It’s as if she didn’t realise that when a small child tries to make themselves understood by gesturing, this is only one phase of language learning. And when a child reaches this level, this a direct precursor to the emergence of speech. So, in this case, strengthening non-verbal communication with our child should not be a priority, but rather, we have to encourage their development verbally, i.e. speaking, because without this, how will they be able to move forward?
A Hungarian mother told me that when she goes to work, she tells her young son that she is going to earn money, in English, because she feels that her child would not yet understand the abstract concept of money in Hungarian.
However, if children are already familiar with a concept in one of their languages, they only need to learn how to say it in their other language. This is easy for them. And in his case, this is all that was needed.
Everyone has their own ideas about multilingual children’s language learning that contradict the reality. The earlier you realise this, the more effectively you can help your child. I can help you with this during an initial 20-minute free consultation. Would you like to contact me?