Tetsu from AskTetsu explains how to best react if your toddler starts mixing languages.
Here’s a question that comes up quite frequently from parents raising kids in two or more languages. “My toddler mixes his languages! Is he confused?!”
Let’s say your child is little, maybe 2 or 3 years old. You want him to speak a foreign language, so you’ve been exposing him since birth to that language in addition to your native language. Then one day you realize that your child is mixing both languages when speaking, sometimes even in the same sentence! And this is freaking you out!
And suddenly, now you remember that your aunt told you not to raise your kid in 2 or more languages, because he will be confused. Now you regret not heeding your pediatrician’s advice to teach your child one language at a time. Now you think that the caregiver at the daycare who told you to drop that additional language is making perfect sense.
Now you feel like you’ve ruined your child’s future because he will probably not even learn one language correctly.
Now. You. Panic.
Does that sound familiar? Hey, I’ve been there. Well, not the panic part. But I mean all 3 of my kids who are old enough to talk, have gone through this phase of mixing languages. For example, when my oldest child Ronnie was two, he would say things such as: “I want bala taberu.” In that short sentence of only 4 words, there are 3 languages. “I want” is of course English, “bala” means guava in Taiwanese, and “taberu” is the verb “to eat” in Japanese.
In linguistics jargon, this phenomenon is called code-mixing or code-switching, depending on the source that you read. And for a long time, it was widely thought that code-switching or code-mixing was a sign of confusion due to children not being able to separate the different languages in their minds. Some even went as far as considering it as incompetence or even a disability.
But thankfully, more recent studies have actually debunked these myths. Now, I won’t go into the details of these studies, but let me refer you to a few easy-to-read blog posts (see reference section). These articles summarize the topic of code-switching and code-mixing very well and include references to some important original literature for those of you who really want to dig into this subject.
But to come back to the original question, no, your child is NOT confused. No, it does not mean that his language development will be delayed. And no, you have not ruined his life! In fact, experts would most likely tell you that he’s doing pretty well, and that he actually has a strong command of his languages, because switching between languages is a complex task that requires a lot of cognitive power!
So who should you believe? The academics, the pediatrician, the daycare staff, your aunt, or, well, me? Now that you know what the phenomenon is called, i.e., code-switching and code-mixing, I recommend you take some time to read up on the subject, starting with the links I have provided, and you can make up your mind based on the information. But meanwhile, I can calm your nerves by telling you one thing, and that is, the unintentional language mixing that your toddler seems to be doing is transient. And it will go away fairly quickly, once the child masters the art of placing words that he knows into specific buckets called “languages”. Now, that is not to say that your child won’t mix and match later in life, but this time, it will be obvious that he is doing it intentionally.
Alright, what do you think about code-switching and code-mixing? Is it a bad thing? Is it scary? Did you expect this to happen? Do let us know!
And if you want to see a video on code-switching and code-mixing, here is a previous video I made on the topic.
Code-switching vs language mixing by Rita Rosenback
Code-switching and code-mixing by Ute Limacher-Riebold
Code-switching, what to do, when should I worry? by Ute Limacher-Riebold
Tetsu Yung is a multilingual father of 4 small children. He runs the YouTube channel AskTetsu, where he shares his knowledge and experience raising his kids in 5 languages: English, Japanese, French, Mandarin, and Spanish. He is a consultant, author, and speaker on the topic of raising multilingual children.
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