After a wee break, we are back with another great episode on a topic we get a lot of questions about: child bilingualism!
For this episode, we invited Dr. Sharon Unsworth, who is a lecturer and researcher on second language acquisition at Radboud University in the Netherlands. Her research focuses on how to best raise children bilingually and which factors play a role in this process and best predict success. She is involved in various projects on early foreign language acquisition and bilingual primary education. More specifically, on the role of age and environmental factors such as the quality of the input, and she is currently leading a project on how the two languages of bilingual children influence each other. While Sharon is based in the Netherlands now, she is originally from England and moved to the Netherlands while completing her PhD. Before starting at Radboud, Sharon held positions at Utrecht University, Leiden University, and the Meertens Institute. Outside of her academic duties, Sharon, as a mother of two bilingual children, regularly gives workshops for parents about raising bilingual children for example.
Sharon has also started a podcast about child bilingualism called Kletsheads – which is in both Dutch and English. You can find more about it on their website, social media pages (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and even LinkedIn!) and on all podcast platforms!
And together with her colleagues at Radboud University and the Max Plank Institute for Psycholinguistics, she founded the first child language festival in the Netherlands, Kletskoppen, which took place for the first time in 2017.
Listen to the episode here!
Read the transcript here!
[Carine]: Welcome back to another exciting edition of Much Language Such Talk. Today you’re hearing from me Carine and my amazing co-host who has escaped the cold of Scotland to visit her family in Galicia, Maria. Hi, Maria. How are you?
[Maria]: I’m all good. Thanks.
[Carine]: So you’ve been in Spain for a couple of weeks now, when you first got home, did it kind of feel like you had to try to remember how to speak Spanish? Or did you kind of get right back into the groove immediately?
[Maria]: Well it took me a while. It’s still hard sometimes, it’s like words, structures… I mean I’ve been away from Spain for a year. So, being in the UK speaking English for one year, it was a big shock for the brain. But it was all right.
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[Carine]: There must have been really great. It’s always wonderful. Whenever I go to visit my family as well, in the first three or four days. I’m just like, I don’t remember how the, what the word for bread is. What’s this one? Yeah. And it’s just completely gone. But I can imagine now you’re going to come back and all of a sudden, it’s going to be like “Oh, no English”.
[Carine]: You should be fine. Yeah, very jealous of you. But you’ll be back with us in the cold very soon, so don’t worry. So today’s guest is Dr. Sharon Unsworth. Lecturer and researcher on second language acquisition at Radboud University in the Netherlands. Sharon’s research focuses on how best to raise children bilingually and which factors play a role in this process and best predicts success, more specifically on the role of age and environmental factors such as the quality of the input, and she is currently leading a project on how the two languages of bilingual children influence each other. While Sharon is based in the Netherlands now she is originally from England and moved to the Netherlands while completing her PhD. Before starting at Radboud, Sharon held positions at Utrecht University, Leiden and the Meertens Institute. Outside of her academic duties, Sharon regularly gives workshops for parents about raising bilingual children started a podcast about child bilingualism called Kletsheads, which is in both Dutch and English. And together with our colleagues from Radboud University and the Max Plank Institute for Psycholinguistics she founded the first child language festival in the Netherlands, Kletskoppen, which took place for the first time in 2017. Welcome Sharon and we’re so excited you can join us. How are you?
[Sharon]: I’m very well thank you. Thanks for having me. It’s a, it’s a delight, and an experience to be the guest on a podcast.
[Carine]: Yeah, instead of actually doing it yourself. It’s a little bit for me, since I actually haven’t done been where you are right now. Would you say that this is more nerve wracking or more relaxing?
[Sharon]: Oh, I’ll tell you the answer to that at the end.
[Carine]: Oh, okay. Okay, can we just jump right in?
[Carine]: All right, take it away, Maria.
[Maria]: So, we wanted to ask how did you become interested in languages in the first place?
[Sharon]: Well, I think that started when I was at primary school. So I grew up in a very monolingual part of England, or at least it was then in the northwest of England, near Preston, which you may or may not be able to hear in my accent. Now, after 20 years in the Netherlands, I’m sure there’s a bit of attrition in and I remember that our teacher, Mrs. Sykes, she was called she came into class and she had a big suitcase. And she opened it up and started picking things out of it and talking and asking, describing them in French. Right, I have just a very vivid memory of her picking stuff out and going “qu’est que ce? C’est un puppet!”. And I loved, I loved this learning French when I was I think I must have been about nine. And I was also just really interested in not necessarily languages per se, but different accents. So I was very good at imitating accents as a kid. And I remember going into an ice cream shop once and ordering an ice cream in a Scottish accent just for just for a laugh, you know, as you do exciting times. And I also know that I had to, like I said my accent is not as strong as it used to be. But when we moved when I went to high school, and I had one of the strongest accents, Lancashire accent. And I remember, you know people, you know, basically taking the mickey out of me because of the way I said certain things I was very attuned to differences between the way people talk. I think that kind of triggered an interest in languages as well. So then I went on I did French and German, there’s my BA. And that’s where I discovered linguistics. And once I discovered linguistics, I was totally hooked.
[Maria]: It happens. Going back to your BA then. So, you did your BA on French and German and you discovered linguistics there you said. So now you’re doing mostly research on children. How did you move from that BA to bilingual development in children and why did you choose that area of linguistics?
[Sharon]: Yeah, so like I said, I think I’ve always been pretty fascinated by kids. Learning languages because I started learning French when I was little I mean, you know, don’t get me wrong. I never became a fluent French speaker from the, you know, the teacher with the suitcase, but it certainly triggered my interest in it. And yeah, so the with bilingual kids, I think I first really got interested in academically during my MA. So I did my MA in Durham, so just down the road from Newcastle. And it was in fact, one of your recent guests Ludovica Serratrice, who was teaching that course, she was just finishing up a PhD in Edinburgh at the time. And I was doing my MA and she gave a course on first language acquisition, and she covered bilingual acquisition. And I think that also got me very interested in it. And I did, I actually did my thesis for my MA on bilingual language development. So I’ve basically been doing it from the get go, really?
[Maria]: And what’s your experience raising bilingual children? Were you interested in this before your studies or just after your MA, well, during your masters or…
[Sharon]: Yeah so, you know, like I said, it is really started at school. And then from my MA onwards, I’ve been interested in in children growing up with two languages. So, my PhD was comparing children learning a second language with adults learning a second language. And, you know, ever since then, I’ve been working with various types of acquisition with a multilingual bilingual acquisition involving kids. So, I was doing that for quite a while before I actually had kids myself. So, I have two children, an 11-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy, who are being raised bilingually, of course, because we live, as you said, at the start, we live in the Netherlands, and my husband’s Dutch, but he’s chosen to speak English to our kids, which many people think was a choice inflicted upon him by his bilingual researcher crazy wife. But actually, it was his own choice. He thought long and hard about it about whether it was, what he wanted to do whether he thought he could do it, right, whether he thought he had the language skills to be able to raise his children, talk to his children in the ways he would want to in that language. And you know, he can, he’s an excellent speaker of English. And we chose to do that because we live in the Netherlands, the kids have been going to nursery since they were three months old. That’s when they started. So they’ve had contact with Dutch. So, we knew they were going to get Dutch and they’re a Dutch school, so that we knew Dutch was going to be okay, so we really. And like I said, you know, they’re 11 and eight now, and they still speak English. To us, most of the time, their default language with each other is English. When there’re older kids around, they’ll switch to Dutch, and depending on the topic, they’ll switch to Dutch as well. But for me, as a researcher who knew a lot about the topic. And who also, you know, I was giving workshops to parents before I had kids myself, it’s been really fascinating to actually watch it happened before your eyes. And you know, to watch them actually “Wow, they really do what we say that they do”, right? But also, they do stuff where you think “Well, that that’s not supposed to happen”, you know, “you’re not supposed to do stuff like that”, “you’re not supposed to switch languages in that way” or whatever. So, it’s been a bit of a reality check as a researcher as well. You know, there is sometimes a gap between what we find in our studies with groups of children a small sample, and what happens in the day-to-day life of people raising their children bilingually and I think bridging that gap is something that I found really exciting to do.
[Maria]: I guess each child is an individual, and each individual is a different world and different experience. And it can be on the books or off the books.
[Carine]: I was reading a paper for one of the classes that I’m tutoring on right now. And I just remember there is a line, it’s just like most acquisition researchers have used their own children, like, you know, their children are the things that got them interested in things. They use their children for all this data. And like, I forgot, there’s one researcher who had actually specifically set up like microphones in his house, just to record his family.
[Sharon]: Yeah, that’s Deb Roy. MIT. Yeah.
[Carine]: When you think about it, insane, but also what a collection of information now and seeing that, I think that was really interesting. You mentioned the one thing about switching the languages because I was, do you have an example of that? Because I always find code-switching and language-switching to be really fascinating.
[Sharon]: Yeah, well, to be honest, it’s not always the switching. And it’s the more the way one language influences the other that they say stuff in English that just sounds like, you know, I know that they’re monolingual cousins don’t say stuff that way. And it can be really subtle like my son said something, “they come a lot of ghosts in our house” or something like that, right? Which is, you know, it’s not ungrammatical.
[Sharon]: But, but it’s a bit weird. But basically means “a lot of ghosts come in our house”, but if you know Dutch, that’s the way you say it in Dutch, right? So you use that structure, or one of my favourite examples is actually where, I think it was my son again, who said, “you’re wobbling all the time the table”, which again, it’s strictly speaking, it is grammatical. And it’s, you know, you understand what he means, right? He was annoyed with a sister who was wobbling the table when they were playing a game, but a monolingual kid wouldn’t say it like that. And one of the lingo kid would say “you’re wobbling the table the whole time”, right? Yeah. So just really subtle things. And other things are just really, you know, they just literally use Dutch words in English. And even they do that the other way around as well. You know, I remember, when my son had just started primary school, he went through this phase where, when he wanted to give a reason for something, you know, so he’d say “cause blah, blah, blah”, you know, “because bla bla bla bla bla”, he would just do that in Dutch too, just start the word with “cause” in English and carry on in Dutch.
[Carine]: I mean, okay.
[Sharon]: You know, doesn’t do it anymore.
[Maria]: Is there a difference between their English like, your daughter and your son’s English level or English competence?
[Sharon]: You mean? And so, I do think, you know, this is, you know, have not measured it. I mean, they you mentioned, researchers having their kids being involved in their, in their research. They have both taken part in various studies over the years, never with me, testing them. But apart from that, you know, I don’t really, I don’t, I occasionally write down examples where I think that would be good for a lecture for, to illustrate something. But I don’t follow them in any great detail. But I do my impression is to get back to your question, Maria, my question, my impression is that the eldest, now the youngest, that’s the boy shows more influence of one language on the other than the eldest. But you know, it does vary. At times. Things change, right? That’s one of the crucial things that I will say to parents. bilingualism is very dynamic.
[Maria]: Yeah, no, I was asking, because I’ve been doing some fieldwork with the Spanish mothers that live in the UK whose kids are also raised bilingual. And they all say, or most of them, at least, have mentioned that the eldest kid always speaks better than the youngest.
[Carine]: That’s how it is in my family. My older sibling speaks both languages, they’ve acquired more of a language. I think it’s because they had the more one on one experience speaking those two languages for two more years than I did.
[Sharon]: Yeah, I mean, there is research on this right. And we’ve actually done some work on the role of older siblings too on bilingual, younger bilingual children’s language development. If you think about it logically makes sense, right, that you have an older sibling goes to school, they start bringing more of the school language into the home. And then this can influence the younger sibling so positively, in the sense that they will, they’ll be further along their acquisition path, as it were, they’ll have learned more than children who don’t have an older sibling. The study in Canada showing that these older siblings can really be very helpful for kids who are learning a second language only when they get to school, right? So start learning the second language, you know, age five, or six or whatever. But you know, that’s also a risk in the sense that work by Erika Hoff and colleagues has shown that when the older kid comes home from school with the school language, if the mother also speaks that language, then they’re more likely to switch to that language too. So basically, it’s not very good for the other language, for the heritage language, if you want to call it that.
[Carine]: I’ve heard that anecdotally, from a lot of friends of mine who are raising kids.
[Sharon]: Yeah, but I think it depends, though, because we found it in a study with Greek, Dutch bilinguals, where we, it wasn’t strictly speaking, a replication of the study, I just mentioned my Erica Hoff, but it used the same method and was the same age group. And we didn’t find that there was negative impact of older siblings on the younger kids’ Greek.
[Carine]: That’s nice to hear.
[Sharon]: Yeah. And I think so, I think one of the issues is it depends also on the extent to which the parents are able to speak that other language, right? And you know, Greek-Dutch, bilingualism isn’t a combination that you come across very often, a lot of the parents who speak Greek, some of them can speak Dutch, but a lot don’t or not enough to consider speaking it to their kids. And yeah, so I think there’s a lot more to find out there. But yeah, generally the impression, the older kids are, tend to be better that’s backed up by research.
[Carine]: We’ve mentioned quite a lot of different things that happened during the acquisition of languages for kids. To you, what’s the most fascinating thing about children learning languages?
[Sharon]: Well, I think, you know, in the first instance, it’s just the fact that they can do it, righ?. They’re really small and like, they know all this stuff already. And even if they can’t express it, or show it directly to you, I mean, researchers have come up with ingenious ways of finding out what, you know, even newborn infants know. But the fact that so, you know, that holds for kids who were, you know, who I think are in the unfortunate situation where they’re only learning one language. But it definitely holds for kids who are learning two languages, right? You see these two languages emerge in a child. It’s just, that’s just amazing. And at the same time, you know, it’s, as I’m sure you’ve mentioned on the podcast before, and anybody knows who works on bilingualism, being bilingual is not the same as being two monolinguals in one. And I think you do develop this. I don’t know what I want to call it knowledge. But you’re different. You know, if you’re bilingual, you’re different from a monolingual. And one of the ways in which you’re different is that your two languages can influence each other. And I find, you know, I just gave you a couple of examples of really subtle examples of the way in which languages can influence each other. But that’s really interesting. Like, why does that happen? How does that happen? What does that tell us about what’s going on in their heads?
[Carine]: I think that’s really, so I grew up in a trilingual household. So, of course, everything was all over the place. And none of the languages I speak are related to each other, like I grew up in the States, my mom’s from Finland, my dad’s from Israel, those are all very different languages. And so, it’s always like, for us, at least when we code switch, like when we borrow words into English, it’s always something about a cultural dominance, for the reasons why we would use that, but generally, from what we know about kids is that they’re supposed to at least follow the dominance of like, the grammatical structure of that sentence, when they borrow words, have you seen it? That that’s not necessarily the case, or…
[Sharon]: Yeah, so I haven’t really done any work on switching, right? On code-switching or code-mixing. So, what we’ve done is really look at finding that has been out there in the research literature for a long time, namely, that bilingual children do follow the developmental paths of monolingual children, right, they go through the same stages, they may or may not do that at the same rate, that may depend on for example, in the amount of input that they hear, but sometimes they may. So monolingual, children will make, let’s say, errors, errors in the sense that it doesn’t sound like an adult should do. And that’s part and parcel of acquiring the language. But then bilingual children may, for example, make those errors a bit longer, because the error in that particular language is very similar to what you would do with the same structure in the other language. But bilingual children, also, I mean, they get over those errors as well, just like monolingual kids. So, we do so it’s like it’s almost a contradiction, right? Bilingual children, they look like monolingual children, in many, many ways, probably most ways, and yet, they do things that sometimes monolingual children wouldn’t do. So, for example, if you take the combination of an adjective and a noun, right? So, green apple, in Dutch, just as in English, you can only say green apple, you can’t say apple green, right? Whereas in languages such as Spanish, French, you also have the other, the other order. And we see, for example, that bilingual children, who are learning English alongside French, may use the English order, so green apple when they shouldn’t do, right? And we also see errors the other way around as odd as it might seem. And we found this also in children learning French, and Dutch, where in Dutch, they see apple green, which is very odd, but they still say it. So, under influence of, of the other language of French. So bilingual kids do, by in large look like monolingual kids, but they do have these things that make them different, and which are really to do with them being bilingual. So, what we’ve been looking at, in a project we’ve been doing is looking at, under what circumstances do children do this, because they don’t do it all the time, right? And not all children do it. And it’s not like everything is all mixed up together in one big mishmash, right? It’s constrained in certain ways. So, what we’ve done, for example, and this is what really led by Chantal Van Dijk, we did a big meta-analysis recently of all the research on this topic, or not all but all the data that we could get hold of. So, a meta-analysis is basically you get the data from lots of different studies, and you put them together. And by putting them together, you’ve got more data and more data means basically more statistical power. So, so what we did is, our colleagues from around the world were kind enough to send us the data for lots of these studies, I said, you know, cross linguistic influence is something that’s been studied a lot over the past 20 years. And we pull those together, and then we look to see okay, what are the factors that predict whether it happens or not? So, first of all, we found you know, it is a thing, right? Cross linguistic influence, it happens, right? So, we know that it happens. So bilingual children do things differently for monolingual children. One of the things that we found was that it does seem that it gets a bit less with age. It is something that persists as children get older. So, it’s part and parcel of being bilingual, right? That you’ve got this influence from one language onto the other. And another thing, we found that dominance seems to play a role. Now that’s a can of worms, if ever there was one, language dominance, what is it, but the way we looked at it, what we found basically was that, that the dominant language was the one of the community in which the children were growing up. So, if it was in the UK, then it will be English. If the children were growing up in the Netherlands, it will be Dutch. And what we found was, there’s more influence of that community language on the other language, and I think probably most parents would think, okay, that makes sense. But it is the case that influence happens the other way around, too, it’s just less, right? So, the heritage language or the home language, depending on how you want to call it that can also influence the other language.
[Carine]: We were talking about this whole balance between speaking languages at home and languages in the community, we’ve gotten this question from our social media, which is about, you’ve done work on the quality and quantity of input for bilingual children. So, like, is there one that’s more important than the other? What’s going on there? So, we just focus on quantity or quality or just kind of hope for the best?
[Sharon]: Well, I think you need to focus on both, right? I also think, whilst we talk about these two things, as though they’re separate, they’re not really separate. And in fact, we’re in a paper that’s like 10 years old, now, you’re on a parody. And one of the key researchers in the field said, basically, you know, we should, we shouldn’t be talking about constant quality, she said always more, there are more quantity-oriented factors and the more quality oriented factors, right? So, they’re like two sides of the same coin that often, not always, but they’re often correlated. So, if you imagine if you have a child who has very little input in a language, maybe because they only get it from one particular speaker, and they don’t spend that much time with that speaker, the fact that they only get it from one speaker, you could think of that also as a measure of quality, right? If you get input from different speakers, then you get in greater range of words, maybe a greater range of syntactic structures, you see there’s a greater use for that particular language, that’s also an indicator of quality. But there in that example, quantity and quality are very, you can’t tease them apart. If you’re finding that the child in that situation does something different from children who hear more input because they have contact with more speakers, you don’t know what it is whether it’s quantity or quality. So, I realise that’s probably not the answer that the person who asked the question really wanted. But we can talk maybe a bit more about what’s been found, I suppose, in terms of input quantity and input quality, and its effects on bilingual language development.
[Carine]: I always say that any input is better than no input. Because there’s the whole thing about hearing language from a range of speakers, as you’ve just said, even if the way that they speak is different, it’s still input, but it’s still important. So yeah, I do feel that the whole quality quantity thing is a little bit tricky, because both my parents are non-native English speakers. But of course, my English is weird because I speak two other languages as well, I should I really realised I should stop saying the word weird. It’s just not quote unquote monolingual. That’s really the only difference there.
[Sharon]: Yeah. And I think, you know, we have to stop making the bilinguals fit in in the monolingual world and make the monolinguals realise that most of the world is actually bilingual.
[Maria]: If not trilingual or…
[Sharon]: Yeah, yeah. Multilingual.
[Sharon]: Yeah. But I think, you know, in terms of input, what is the actual effect of having different amounts of input or different kinds of input? Bilingual children are a great natural experiment, right? Because, because of the fact that they grew up in all these different setups, right? Sometimes both parents speak this, their heritage language, sometimes it’s just one. Sometimes they’re embedded within a whole community. Sometimes they’re just this, like, little household who speak, I don’t know, Finnish in the middle of a sea of English. So that means there is a lot of variation. So, it does mean that we can answer quite interesting questions about what the role is of input, input quantity on language acquisition. You know, it depends on your theoretical persuasion, right? What you think that that actually is. And I think it’s clear that input quantity does matter. Right? Kids who were more generally learn the language more quickly. Whether they end up in a different place, I don’t really know just the kids do less, end up, catch up. In the end, they just take longer, right? So, actually, a lot of the studies looking at the role of input quantity, they’re really looking at the speed of acquisition, because we’re looking at kids when they’re still acquiring stuff. I think input quantity matters. Probably up to a certain degree, right? If you think if all the input that a monolingual kid got. So, kids, typically what we do is we say, you know, the bilingual children, he is 70% English and 30% French or 80%, Dutch and 20% Arabic, right? So, we kind of divide up like that. So that means monolingual kids are your 100%, of whatever it is, whatever the language is. So, if all of that input mattered was crucial, that would mean, basically, you could never have bilingual children who were successful in acquiring.
[Carine]: That’s a really good point. I had never really thought of it that way before. Yeah, like, there’s obviously a certain percentage of input that is important. That’s what the baseline you basically need. But I don’t think we found what that magic number is yet.
[Sharon]: Well, I was gonna say, and I’m sure people are thinking, okay, come on, then tell us what is it? How much is that? Well, I think we don’t, we don’t really know. There are various studies out there. There’s a lot of really nice work by Elin Thordardottir, looking at English-French bilinguals, in Canada, showing that I think, I read the paper for a while, but it was something like, I think they’re about four or five year olds. And I think the kids who had overtime over their lives are heard, I think between 40 and 60% exposure in that language had caught up with monolingual peers, or something like that. In any case, again, that just reiterates this idea that it can’t all be about the amount of input you get, because if it were, then we wouldn’t have any bilingual kids, I think. And I think also, it seems to be the case that the variation that kids have in the amount of input that they hear, right, seems to be more important for the home language, for the heritage language, than the community language. Because as soon as you get a lot of, of the community language at home, and especially if the community language is already in the home, because one of the parents speaks it, then it’s really that heritage language, which is at risk of not having enough input, right? So, parents should really try and boost that as much as they can. And and, you know, I think, whilst we know, input quantity matters, with there is, you know, for many things, it’s, you know, that matters also for monolinguals. Right? You only know certain words, because you’ve come across them, right? So, for vocabulary that input matters, well, yeah, okay. And for certain aspects of other for language, you know, like inflection on verbs. That you know, for in the third person singular, in Dutch, you add a -t, and then English, you add, a -s, you know, that’s also something you have to learn. But the fact that you know that there is something like the verb has to agree with the subject. That’s maybe something that’s something that you know, from the get-go. But there’s a whole lot more research that needs to be done there, I think, where we need to delve into more detail about what exactly we’re looking at, in terms of which specific aspects of language are being acquired are not influenced by input and which aren’t and what does that tell us about how language is acquired.
[Carine]: I think the hardest thing that this research has is the fact that I feel like people need to remember that we are testing kids, and we’re not putting them in boxes, and then just watching them for a couple of years at a time. So, like, we’re doing what’s called cross-sectional studies where you know, you have a kid at a specific point in their life, and we test them at that point. And we have to make a generalisation of what this group of kids that are roughly the same age when they’re quite young month to month their language changes. And so, we can generalise at this age point, this makes a difference. But yeah, we don’t get the chance to put, you know, microphones in everyone’s houses and see exactly how their child develops over years.
[Sharon]: Yeah, and you know, so in the early days of the field of bilingual language development, there were lots and lots of studies, which were essentially multiple case studies of following individual children over longer periods of time, and then collecting data from them every two weeks. And we know a lot of what we know about bilingual acquisition comes from those kinds of studies. So, they can be really important, but of course, they do make it harder to generalise because you only have a certain number of children. And, you know, let’s face it, maybe very specific children, because the parents have agreed that you can go around every two weeks to collect data from them, right? So, the probably well educated, positively oriented towards research, doesn’t mean say that the data from the children isn’t valuable, but it does mean that is not generalizable like I said. We know also, it sounds a bit daft, but one of the reasons why we don’t have a lot of the data that we should have, you know, ideally, we’d follow kids right over time, most projects, research projects, most funding for research projects, or for projects, they’re, you know, maximally five years, and then if you take it off, you know, a year at the start a year at the end to get set up and to finish up. And then you know, you’ve got to do everything. You’ve got very little time left in the middle to actually be able to follow children. So, in a certain sense, we can’t do some of the research that we might want to do because it’s just made impossible by the constraints that we’re under from research funding parties, so if anybody’s listening from the research funding institutions, we need money for bigger and longer projects.
[Sharon]: But just to get back to input and input quality, I think one of the issues, or one of the questions that people often have is whether you can speak a non-native language to your child. And so, and there are two circumstances under which this is relevant, right? So one is, you are a speaker of a language that is not the language of your community. So, I’ll just to make it a bit more concrete, let’s use the Netherlands as the example. So, you don’t speak Dutch as your native language. And yeah, you get told by often well meaning, but uninformed teachers, or family members, or even politicians, they you should speak Dutch to your kids, because it will be better for the development because obviously, you need Dutch or whatever the language of the community is to be able to function at school, right and being good at school is important. So that’s one circumstance. And the other is one where, you know, I mentioned earlier on in our house, you know, my husband is a nonnative speaker, he speaks his nonnative language to our kids, and which he chose to do that, because he wanted to boost the support for our home language, English. And he could do that, because he knew that there was no risk in him not speaking Dutch, because the kids are going to learn Dutch anyway. And then the question really is, does it matter? Right? Does it matter is native input getting a lot of native input better than getting nonnative input? And so, there isn’t actually that much research on this. This work by again by Erica Hoff, and colleagues, where they found that the amount of native input, so input from native speakers that children got, and these were Spanish-English bilingual toddlers, that was a positive predictor of their scores. Okay, so basically, native input was more supportive, conducive to acquisition. We did a study looking at three year olds, with various various language, other languages, we were looking at their Dutch. And what we found was that it wasn’t actually the amount of native or nonnative input that the kids got, that wasn’t what mattered, what mattered was the degree of non-nativeness of the nonnative input. Right? So how good or how bad was the nonnative input. So, I think that adds a bit of nuance to that picture, right? So, it’s not the case that being a non-native speaker means that you can’t or shouldn’t speak a language, that language to a child. But if you do, you do need to be a reasonably proficient nonnative speaker. And whether you choose to do that will depend, as I kind of hinted at, at the start that on what other sources are available for your child in that language, right? So, if we take the example of somebody who speaks Dutch as their second language, and they’re being told, oh, you should speak Dutch, rather than your, your other language. Well, in that case, they’re going to get Dutch anyway. So, even if you really got angry, I could speak Dutch to my kids, I would never speak Dutch to my kids, because that would feel a bit weird doing it. But I could do, because my Dutch is really good. But I wouldn’t, because if I don’t, if I speak Dutch means I’m not speaking English. So, they’re not gonna get the English. The I think this is maybe a good example, actually, of how quality and quantity meet right, you’re balancing those two things out with each other. And I think with all of these things, with all of these things related to parenting, it’s very much a personal choice as well, right? But it needs to be an informed personal choice.
[Carine]: I was about to say that that informed decision is incredibly important. 100%.
[Maria]: Even in bilingual communities, there’s this like this lack of information and knowledge, general knowledge about bilingualism. I come from a bilingual community, where one of the languages, I don’t know the minority language, which is not well considered in society. And throughout the dictatorship, parents were told like, “Well, if you’re speaking Galician to your kid it’s going to be uneducated is not going to get anywhere in life, you should speak Spanish only”. And a lot of kids were raised with that idea. And now they’re missing out on all the advantages, or all the good things bilingualism can bring to a kid and all the opportunities and skills that gives someone just because of political ideas or like just lack of general knowledge. And it’s still there, like now after so many years of research that was obviously back in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s. But still, after so many years of research it;s still that lack of general knowledge is still there. And it’s affecting many families. It’s improving these days. But.
[Sharon]: Yeah, and that’s why it’s really important to have things like this podcast and Bilingualism Matters and you know, and all the other activities that our colleagues around the world are involved in right dis promoting, not only promoting bilingualism, but like I said, making sure that parents and teachers can make informed choices. The thing about languages is around us all the time and everybody has an opinion about it. Right? And that opinion can be based on other things, you know, prejudice, for example, certain kinds of bilingualism okay, but others are not. And, you know, we need to make clear that, you know, what is really based on research. What do we know from research from well executed studies? What do they tell us? And you know, and sometimes we don’t know, we don’t have the answers, but at least when we do have the answers, or we do have information that can inform those decisions, we need to make sure that it’s out there.
[Maria]: Now that we hinted a bit on society and the effect of society on bilingualism, we wanted to ask, what’s the role of society in bilingual children, in your opinion? Is it easy to discourage a child, to make them reject one of the languages? Or is there anything, a relationship between those sociolinguistic factors and bilingualism for a child?
[Sharon]: Yeah, I think that definitely is and I must say, I’ll say straight up, this is not something that I’ve actually done research on myself. But I know that the opinions and the status of certain languages in the wider community certainly play a role in how the bilinguals themselves value their language. You kind of hinted at that already Maria in the example you just gave, but also whether teachers think it’s good for children to learn in these other languages. So, in the Netherlands, and I’m sure and I know in the UK, it’s probably really not any different. Certain kinds of bilingualism is considered okay, others aren’t. So is. I mean, this is a wild generalisation. And of course, many people do not think this. But in general, a lot of the time, you know, bilingualism with English, where I speak English to my kids, “Fine, wonderful, it’s a gift for your child”, etc, etc. That somebody else speaks Turkish to their children, then it’s “Oh, are you sure they’re Dutch will be okay? Isn’t that a problem? Won’t they be confused?” And you know, I’m exaggerating a bit here. But this still happens. And so, you know, I spoke a while back to a young woman, early 20s. Arabic was her other language, who told me that when she was at primary school, the teacher was explaining some peculiarity of Dutch spelling. So, D’s and T’s get mixed up. So, if anybody’s listening who speaks Dutch, they’ll know they’ll know what I mean, this is one of the things that people get mixed up in, in Dutch. And the teacher had explained this to the class and said, “You know, it’s pretty complicated” and then pointed to the like this woman, then girl, and her friends, her multilingual friends and said, “You know, it’s really complicated. Don’t worry, if you can’t get it”. Basically, like “You are multilingual is hard enough for you anyway, don’t worry if you can’t get it”. Or you know, and this young girl grew up to be a very feisty woman, and was very, “I just was like, why you told me I understand it better than some of the monolingual speakers, right? So why are you talking to us like this?” We know not everybody’s like that. There are studies showing that, for example, teachers, some teachers really do not value certain forms of multilingualism. And that is reflected in the expectations that they have for children. And then the children realise there are low expectations for them, and then they fulfil those low expectations, and it becomes a vicious circle.
[Carine]: That’s self-fulfilling prophecy of just assuming that that’s what’s going to happen.
[Sharon]: Exactly, exactly. And so, in that sense, to get back to your question, Maria. Yeah, I think I really do think society has a large role to play. And I’ve just illustrated it in a way that’s not a very positive way, I think showing so if there are teachers listening, you know, showing that you value all forms of bilingualism, right? That you’re interested and that you think that it’s important and that that part of a child is not something that you just let them leave at the school gate, but you’re interested in it as well, just like you would be interested in them, if there were the fact that they love football, or they’re learning to play the saxophone.
[Carine]: That whole, the power of a language within the world. So, like English, everyone’s just like, well, English is super useful, you must learn English. So, learning this very obscure language isn’t beneficial to you. It doesn’t matter if your parents are there, it doesn’t matter if there’s that cultural link there. It’s not going to help you in the long run. So don’t even bother with that. You can see that with the US as well about what languages we teach in schools. And so, Scotland recently came up with their one plus two project, where they’re supposed to be taking languages from the communities and bringing them into the schools. But of course, we’ve had years and years and years decades of training for specific European languages that now when you are looking to bring or do Punjabi into the classrooms, we don’t have teachers trained in those languages. So how do we even start to do that?
[Sharon]: I would really like also to say, you know, what I just said about the role the community, in particular about professionals in education, wasn’t particularly positive. But there are many positive projects and initiatives out there, where people really are, who really do they bring in the children’s home languages, they ask the children about them, they let them use them in class so that they can look things up in that language to help them understand the content, to let children who speak the same language discuss content with each other, because it will help them understand it more readily. That’s quite a big change to start teaching like that. But you can even just start with having welcome signs in different languages. And not telling parents which is sometimes what parents hear get told that you can only speak Dutch at school, letting them speak their own language to their kid, because then they’re going to feel more positive about being at school and we, you know, maybe will be more likely to get involved at school, right? It’s just small steps, just small indications, small signs that you can give to parents that they’re welcome. And their languages are welcome. And promoting the positivity, the positive aspects of bilingualism.
[Carine]: Which there are many.
[Maria]: Yeah. For those a bit worried about this topic, I was thinking how many languages are too many for a child? Is there a limit? Is there none?
[Sharon]: There’s a limit in the sense that there’s only so many hours in the day, right? So, however many languages you have, your language pie, as I always like to call it, we’ll get caught into small, more pieces. Some of those pieces will be just as big as kids who will learn in two languages. But some, inevitably will not be. And you know, like I said before, it’s not all about input, but it is important that the opportunities to use the language, there are key factors. So, it’s perfectly possible to grow with three languages. So, it’s perfectly possible and many, many children do around the world. The factors that affect bilingualism also affects trilingualism. And you know, just like bilingualism, your proficiency, a child’s proficiency in each of those languages, the willingness to speak, each of those languages may change over time. There’s not actually that much research on trilingualism for a number of reasons. I think there are kids who learn four or more. I spoke a while ago to a kid who knew six languages, and she was only like seven or eight.
[Carine]: That’s amazing.
[Sharon]: Yeah, but you know, you’re unlikely to be equally proficient in all of them. But of course, you don’t need to be equally proficient in all of them. You need to be able to be as proficient as you need to be to do whatever it is you want to do in that language. And I think, at least in the early years, my understanding is that it should be, you need to make sure that there’s at least one language that is pretty well developed, so that the kids can develop in other ways.
[Maria]: Yeah, and still is, well, it surprises me, I’m not sure why it surprises me considering how much research we’ve done on this stuff. Still, people who speak three, four languages, maybe they’re not equally proficient in all of them, but they do have one stronger or two stronger languages, and they still consider themselves monolingual. It’s surprising. Well, to me, I would consider them fascinating, but they consider themselves as simple as monolingual. Moving on to another topic, we want to ask for your advice. What advice would you give parents when raising bilingual children in general, or in the UK or elsewhere? Maybe I guess we thought the UK because it’s a pretty monolingual country. Especially in situations where children might only speak one of the two languages, how would you encourage families to keep doing it? What advice would you give them?
[Sharon]: So, I think this is the question that I always get, whenever I give a talk, basically, “My kid will only speak the school language back to me”. That’s essentially the nub of it, right? And so, I think the first thing is to say, That’s really frustrating. And it’s fine to feel frustrated about it, because it is really frustrating. My eldest daughter has always spoke English to me, is starting to speak in more and more Dutch. Yeah, it’s hard. It’s hard to know how to deal with it. So, I think the key is to stay positive. I notice if I try and encourage my daughter to say, “Oh, why are you saying in Dutch? Can you not say it in English? Why do you say in English?” If I do that too much, she gets annoyed with me. And then she’s annoyed with me and being annoyed about talking English. And then there’s this negative association. And that can never be good. I think it’s a fine line, sometimes between encouragement and nagging. But that’s not only with what language you speak. I think as a parent, that’s with many things. I think what’s key really is to find those opportunities for input for the home language or heritage language. So, look, for example, if you need a babysitter, try and find a babysitter who speaks that language. I mean, I realise in some places it will be easier than others. If you’ve got really young children and you could meet up there are parent-child, parent-toddler groups focused around different languages in various places. There are community language schools, as well. So, if you want your child to, you know, if they can read and write in a language particularly read, then that also opens up a whole world to them as well. And try and get resources from family and friends in your country of origin that you can use, right? So, if you’ve got family or friends who’ve got kids or kids the same age, ask them, you know, what are their kids doing? What are they like reading? What do they do? And see if they can share whatever videos is, or books or tips, whatever we, for example, yeah, I know, I’m in a very privileged position, because English is a home language, get this weekly newspaper for kids The Week to Do Junior, we get that sent over, and their kids already get one in Dutch. It doesn’t have to be a newspaper. But like, if you’re in a situation where you can afford to do that, and appreciate it, not everybody is but if you are, you know, something that somebody used, and they send it to you write a subscription to some kind of magazine, or some kids think, you know, it’s really gonna, it’s exciting. And it comes through the post, I mean, how much comes through the post, days, hardly anything. So, something like that. something that’s fun. And I think you also really need to look for genuine opportunities for them to use the language. So, kids will speak to you back in the school language, because they know you understand it, because they think well, maybe don’t even think that they’ve been using it all day at school. And it’s easier, right? It’s going to cost more effort. And I think it’s good to appreciate that. So, some parents will then carry on speaking the home language, their heritage language, the non-school language. And eventually, and I see that to my kids, eventually, you know, after school, it’s all Dutch, Dutch, Dutch, and then eventually, the English will come back. So, I think it’s also a case of not giving up. And I think if you’re having a bilingual conversation with your child, so you’re speaking, home language, your kids speaking back to you in the school language, and you’re understanding each other, and you’re having a conversation, your kid’s bilingual. In that sense, don’t give up hope. I mean, a great example is our neighbours, we are blessed with a bilingual English-Dutch family across the road.
[Sharon]: But they have kids who are comparable ages, at least one of them to ours. And they’re very good friends or kids. Their mom is American, the dad is Dutch, and she always speaks English to them. She understands Dutch. The kids have always spoken Dutch back to her. They went to the States this year, for three weeks, came back, and they’re both speaking English. And you know, they are eight, and five. So I always say, you know, like, I’m amazed by how she has stocked to being able to keep speaking English, when the kids are speaking about dogs to a bunch came out. And then the kids, the kids are in speaking English to me. They were speaking English amongst themselves for a while. I think it’s gone back to Dutch now, but still not English, you know. And that wouldn’t have happened if she had given up speaking English to them. Right? It wouldn’t have happened because they wouldn’t have had that basis. So, they did know English, it’s just, they didn’t really have any genuine opportunities for using it.
[Carine]: That’s, it’s so heartwarming to hear that that experience was, you know, she persevered. And you know, they’ve gotten to this point that they’re using it now. That must be just so nice for her to see that. I can, I’m just thinking now with my own mother, and I’m like, “Oh, no, I put her through this for so long”.
[Maria]: Going back to the fieldwork I’ve been doing. A lot of mothers mentioned that the visits to the home country used to help a lot with their bilingual development. And because of COVID, and not being able to travel with young kids or being able, but being hard and not doing it, and so on. A lot of their kids have stuck to English. And even though the mothers stuck to Spanish, in this case, they’re struggling with their kids developing their Spanish, or they’ve seen a difference between now that they haven’t been going back and forth between Spain and the UK as much and beforehand when they used to do that. And that that makes a big change. And what you were saying with your neighbour, it makes a big difference going back to the home country for the language development.
[Sharon]: Yeah, it definitely does you know, parents report that as well. You know, going to school holidays, this the last day of the school holidays, their visit to the, back to whatever country it is. And then all of a sudden, the kids start speaking that language and they’re just like, “Oh, my God, I didn’t realise they could, they could do it”. Yeah. So, I think that’s, you know, a perfect illustration of how important it is, frustrating as it can be, not to give up.
[Carine]: Yeah. You have mentioned try and find opportunities. And I think these days, something that’s really easy for parents is to have their kids watch TV shows or use tablets and play games and things like that. Is it beneficial for kids to engage with their heritage languages or a second language through television and movies, or should we try to not do that if possible? I know it’s hard but.
[Sharon]: Well, I think it’s a resource. To the extent that you want your kids to be doing that anyway, which is a discussion that could be had, again on the raising your child podcast, not necessarily anything to do with bilingualism, but that to the extent that you want, you’re happy with your child doing that, then I think you can use Apps and YouTube and whatever, to provide more input in the language, in the heritage language. That’s what we did with, I remember very clearly that my eldest child, I think, was two, three years old, when all of a sudden, she realised, I mean, she didn’t go on the tablet that much, but she did go on it. And like watching, like, you know, YouTube videos, or doing educational Apps and stuff, when she realised that she’s like, “Oh, Mom, the iPad talks, the iPad talks Dutch”. Like she was like, what? Like her? I didn’t know the iPad spoke Dutch. Like, because, you know, so in the early years, I think it’s a great way of boosting their exposure for sure. You know, kids aren’t going to learn a second language entirely through TV or outside, they learn lots of words, for sure. And they might even learn some grammar, but you need interaction.
[Carine]: That’s a good point. So, we’ve talked about encouraging families to keep up their languages. You’ve mentioned how you’ve done a lot of workshops and talks. And I mentioned this during the introduction as well. You have a podcast called Kletsheads.
[Carine]: So, this is about child bilingualism, a lot of your research. I think, also during a talk before this, you mentioned you actually have kids, come on, you ask them questions about being raised bilingual.
[Carine]: Which I could imagine is adorable. What was your idea about the podcast? And how did you get it going?
[Sharon]: So, the podcast is really, is a spin off for every child language festival that we organise in the Netherlands, that which you mentioned, I think, in the intro as well, Kletskoppen, which means chatterboxes. It’s a Science Festival all about language for kids. And so, well the name for a start is bilingual, as well, right? So, it’s “klets” means chat in Dutch and “koppen” is heads. So that’s where I got to Kletsheads. And I must admit, it wasn’t me who came up with the name, it was my husband. It was brainstorming with him that we came up with this, but I think he was the one who came up with it. So, all credit to him for that. But the idea is basically, to have a way which is easy to access, and a way that we can give parents answers to questions that they are asking, that are grounded in research. So, I’ve been doing workshops for years now. And I get asked the same questions. I mean, not always, but often variations of the same question. And I thought that was a good way to start by answering those questions. And so, it’s a mix of science experience and practical tips. So, in every episode, there’s another expert who I interview about a certain topics, or many of the topics we’ve spoken about today. We’ve got episodes on, got an episode on trilingualism, we’ve got episode on cross linguistic influence, we’ve got an episode on how much input do you need to hear. So many of the topics that we’ve spoken about today, and I myself, like listening to podcasts, podcasts are great that you can listen to them when you’re out running when you’re on your bike, which we are a lot to you in the Netherlands. And when you’re commuting, when you’re folding up the washing, right? You don’t need to be watching something. So, they’re a great way to learn about something. And for me as well, I just love the creativity of it. Like making something out of nothing. I’m a bit of a, I love crafting, I like sewing and baking, you know, when I have time and I could find the time to do all these things. But you know, this is also very creative thing as well. So, you know, like I said, we have kids on as well. So, the Kletshead of the week, although it’s actually monthly podcasts. So, there’s a bit of a misnomer. But anyway, and it’s great. So, one of the things I asked the kids is, you know, “So what’s it like being bilingual?” And the most frequent answer that we’ve ever, that we get back is like, “Well, normal”, like so like, what kind of an odd question is that? And I think even though several kids have said this, I always leave that in because I just think it’s great. Like to them it’s the most normal thing in the world. You know, and the example I gave about the kid who was told, you know, she didn’t need to bother learning certain aspects of Dutch spelling that was she was on Kletsheads as well. That’s in the Dutch version, though. So, it started in Dutch in 2019. And we’ve done two seasons in Dutch. So, there’s 24 episodes out in Dutch and then I started an English version last year, and we’re now in between seasons. So, season two and three, respectively. I’ll be coming out in the new year, so I’m busy making plans for those.
[Maria]: It’s funny what you said that they said feeling normal. As a child being raised bilingual, and in a bilingual community, I never even thought that was not normal.
[Maria]: The actual thing was when I moved to Madrid and into the UK, I thought, “That’s odd. Why do you only have one language?”. I’ve got two languages and express different ideas or even vocabulary, even if I only speak Spanish, and I put Galician words into it. That’s for me, express better the meaning and now I do it with English. Even when I’m speaking Spanish. Even if I’m in Spain, I put English words that for me express certain feelings. How are you monolingual and you don’t have that tool in your life? That was odd.
[Carine]: It’s always really interesting, where you just like you have that one word. And it’s just like, it’s in this one language, it’s not in the other. And when the people around you speak the same languages, it’s so convenient, because you can just throw it in there. You don’t even have to think about it. It’s just like, great. Awesome, because I forget words in every language all the time. But when someone else speaks another language that I do, I’m like, “Yes, I have an extra resource. This is great. Thank you”.
[Sharon]: Yeah. And, you know, we mentioned a lot of the positive sides of bilingualism, but this is one of the downsides, right? It’s that sometimes it takes you a bit longer to find the word that you’re looking for.
[Sharon]: But you know, small price to pay for us if you ask me.
[Carine]: Yeah, I would definitely take this any day. I love that the kids are just saying that that’s, you know, that’s my life. Yeah. Nothing, nothing weird about it. So many people ask us questions about raising their kids. And sometimes we actually feel really bad that it’s like, “Oh, well, we’re gonna talk about this instead”. So, everyone, this is a great opportunity. Please listen to Kletsheads, you can get all your child’s questions asked and answered. All of them. You’ll have an answer to every single question, right?
[Sharon]: Well, we’re between seasons right now. So, if anybody has questions that we’ve not answered in the previous season, and there are many that we haven’t answered, then they are very willing to get in touch because we will try and do that on the second season.
[Carine]: So, this podcast has been going on for a couple of years now. It’s also, you said that that’s kind of the brainchild of the festival, the Kletskoppen. You’re working on several other projects as well. Would you like to tell us about what you’re working on and what’s coming up next?
[Sharon]: Well, so right now, with Kletskoppen, we’re working on the next festival, which will be in March. And we recently got funding from the Dutch Research Agenda to expand and go to different parts of the Netherlands. And so, we’re now doing that. And not only just with a festival, but for example, going into classes, going into schools and giving classes about language and language science. So one of the things that we’re, this isn’t only about multilingualism by any means, but we really want to show to children, that you can do science and be a scientist with language, that you don’t have to be using test tubes, setting things on fire, or, you know, doing all the wonderful things that you can do with children, if you want to, if you do that kind of science. So that’s, that’s some project that we’re working on.
[Carine]: I wish I was back in primary school now. Like, it’s always so much fun.
[Sharon]: Yeah, it’s really, it’s really fun. And it’s really nice to collaborate, you know, with teachers to collaborate with the light, we work a lot with a library, the festival is in our local library. So that’s one thing. We also have, like animations about bilingualism, they’re out in English already. And they’re coming out very soon in Turkish, Arabic and Polish.
[Carine]: That’s a great range. Wow.
[Sharon]: And then yeah, I’m also research wise, we’re actually going to look at trilinguals. We’re trying to set up a study now looking at what predicts whether children become active trilinguals. And I’m working with Ludovica Serratrice. She was on recently and Cecile de Cats and colleagues in France, and Drasko Kascelan, in Leeds, where we are trying to develop this questionnaire or trying to, we have developed a questionnaire, online tool to measure or estimate input quantity and quality. So basically, bilingual language experience, right? So we’re joined together, the research that we’ve done individually with these kinds of questionnaires over the years, and we’re now trying to start in with a consensus survey with colleagues from around the world. Also, speech language therapists and teachers were trying to now figure out what needs to be in such a questionnaire, how can we make it work and be efficient? So that’s just been launched. And now we’re doing the validation study for that. We’ve got a new year left of that project. And it’s been absolutely fabulous to work with my colleagues on that. And you know, if people are interested in that, go along to the website and see what language versions we’ve got. If you’re interested in translating it into a different language, then get in touch with us. It’s very much in the spirit of open science.
[Carine]: Fantastic, which is what we’re all about Open Science 100%. All right. That’s all the questions we have. Sharon, thank you so much. This has been such a great conversation. Thank you so much for having this conversation with us. This has been so fantastic.
[Maria]: Thank you for coming and talk to us.
[Sharon]: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
[Carine]: I can imagine everyone listening has got to learn some wonderful things. And he now has more questions and more things to ask about child bilingualism. So to everyone listening who has these questions, do send Sharon your questions so that when the next episode of Kletsheads comes out, I think you said January.
[Sharon]: Yeah, probably February for the English one. But yeah, we’re making it now. So.
[Carine]: It’s happening, guys. So, send those questions on through, you’ll be able to find links in the description to Sharon’s websites, social media channels, to the different festivals and the researchers that and projects that Sharon has mentioned. Thank you everyone for joining us. Once again. Sharon, thank you so much for spending time with us. This has been really fantastic. As always guys, we’ll see you next time. Stay safe, stay healthy and…
[Sharon]: Doei! (Dutch for Good-bye)
[Maria]: Adeus! (Galician for Good-bye)
[Carine]: זײַ געזונט (Zie gezunt, Yiddish for Good-bye/be healthy)