As has been pointed out earlier, India is a multi-lingual society. When combined with the fact that English is not native to India, we end up with truly unique challenges. Let us try and understand these complexities in more detail, from the point of view of phonics for children and child language development.
What is true multilingualism?
For the sake of simplicity, we define a true multi-linguist as a person who is completely comfortable with more than one language, as though they are his/her native language or mother tongue. For a person to be truly multilingual is quite rare. It happens only when a person is exposed to these languages in a structured and consistent manner from very early age.
Even in India, most people who are comfortable with more than one language, still have primary (mostly their mother tongue) and second (or third) languages.
In our earlier article, we pointed out that by about 9-10 months of age, most children raised in a monolingual environment, lose the ability to discern sounds spoke in non-native languages. They can only ‘hear’ sounds spoken in their native language. But children who are brought up in a bilingual environment can discriminate sounds of both the languages that they are exposed to. In fact, bilingual children can also differentiate between the two languages that they are exposed to.
Seeds of Multilingualism should be planted in Early Childhood
In a very interesting experiment, monolingual (only English) and bilingual (English and French) infants were both shown ‘silent films’ in which the characters spoke two different languages. In the first half of the film, the characters spoke English and in the second half, they spoke French. But because they were silent films, the infants could not hear what was being spoken. They could only see the characters move their lips and observe other facial characteristics. It was found that 8-month-old monolingual infants could NOT identify when the language switched (from English to French) in the silent film. But bilingual infants could identify when the language changed even when they were watching only a silent film!
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Bilingual children find the language switching event, relevant and important. Monolingual children on the other hand stop looking for cues that indicate a language switch, as it is neither important or relevant to their real-life environment.
It is therefore quite clear that seeds of multilingualism should be planted very early in the childhood. So the next question that arises is that, is there an upper limit in terms of age? Intuitively we understand that new language acquisition becomes increasingly difficult as we get older. There are various hypotheses on this topic. But most research studies seem to indicate that there is a slow decline in new language learning abilities starting from the age of about 7 Years or thereabouts. If children are exposed to a new language in a structured and consistent manner below this age of 7, they will almost be as comfortable in it as their native language. They will be able to master all aspects of the second language including pronunciation, grammar, accent etc.
As mentioned in the earlier part of the article, for most Indian children, their mother tongue (native language) would be the primary language and English would probably be the second language. The process by which the second language is acquired by a child is a fascinating area of research.
Research indicates that learners of a second language tend to develop their own hybrid language of sorts, called interlanguage, which helps them leverage on their knowledge of primary language to generalize and learn. There are numerous factors, besides the age of the learner, that determine the effectiveness of second language acquisition including: length and quality of exposure to the second language etc. A greater understanding of this process of second language acquisition will enable us to better understand how best can we help our children to become multilingual.
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- Infants who are brought up in a bilingual environment can discriminate sounds of both the languages that they are exposed to.
- The seeds of multilingualism should be planted early in the childhood.
- Children exposed to a new language in a structured and consistent manner from below the age of 7, become as comfortable in it as their native language.
- Picking up newer languages becomes difficult with increasing age of the child.
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