Communication with a child begins from a mother’s womb. Once the child is of the age of picking a language, he or she is more likely to pick a language that he or she hears the most. Sometimes when the child is exposed to multiple languages, either he picks few words from every language and communicate in a mixed language or might get confused and have a delayed speech.
While some Paediatricians insist that we speak in only one language with our child so that it helps the child speak on time and with fluency, there are others who believe in exposing the children to multiple languages at a young age since children have the capacity to absorb maximum within first 5 years of their growth. They don’t mind a delay in speech in such cases.
Let us not forget that every child is different. Both my husband and I have roamed around the globe throughout our growing years. We both were exposed to many languages in our childhood. While my husband picked up his mother tongue along with Hindi and English, I picked a few additional languages besides my mother tongue, Hindi and English.
My child also had to deal with a similar situation. My husband and I come from two different linguistic families. His family speaks Marathi while mine speaks Kannada. My daughter was born in US. Like in all Indian families, my mother came to help me the first few months and conversed with my baby in Kannada while the next few months my mother in law spoke to her in Marathi. Both my parents and in-laws were visitors who would be with us for just a few months in a year. Since my husband and I were college buddies, we were comfortable in Hindi and English. Our mother tongue was tertiary languages for us. So bottom line, my daughter was exposed to 4 languages in her first two years.
To add to her linguistic confusion, since she also used to go to day care, she was exposed to Spanish too. So overall my daughter was placed in the category of “too many languages has confused her and is the reason for her delay in speech”.
As a parent, it was important for me to make her conversable in her daycare. I wanted her to feel comfortable with people around her in my absence so that she could understand and express her needs to her caretakers. So we chose to speak to her in English. Since English became a language that she would hear more often than others both at home and in daycare, she picked the language faster and by the age of three had a fabulous vocabulary.
Every time the grandparents visited, they would speak in Marathi and Kannada with her. We never discouraged this as parents and the result was she could understand Marathi and Kannada very well, but would respond back only in English.
This did create a slight distance between them. We did speak to her in our mother tongue but she was in daycare for 8 hours in a day so she chose English to be her primary language. We have never regretted this till date.
When she was 4 we decided to come back to India. That’s when we faced some hiccups. Kids of her age primarily spoke in Marathi or Hindi since we moved to Mumbai. To add to her misery, the poor child also had an American accent to her English, which made her a bully for children around. This started affecting her in her social development. While she was praised in school for an amazing English vocabulary compared to her peers, there was a social stigma she was going through. That’s when I started speaking to her in Hindi consistently. In a few months, she picked the language as now this was the language that she was hearing more often in her surroundings and wanted to learn to fit in her circle of friends and surrounding.
Today she is 11 and although her primary language for communication is English, she speaks Hindi and Marathi and understands Kannada very well. She picks a foreign language very easily and knows basics of French, German and Spanish. My second child who is born in Mumbai is now 6 and speaks in English, Hindi and Marathi but has no clue of Kannada. The reason being I never enforced any particular language to my children. I gave them exposure to languages based on the needs of the surroundings and situations. I never discouraged my in-laws or parents to speak in their mother tongues, but then like I have repeatedly said, children tend to pick a language that they hear more often and consistently than the others.
Do we really need more than one language to communicate with our children on a daily basis? I think any language that creates a level of comfort between two people is good to go. Having secondary and tertiary languages is good to have, but in the end what works in everyday life is the primary language which need not be the mother tongue.
As a parent to a next generation child, I believe in globalization and try to expose my children to as many languages as I can- Indian or International. I can only set the stage for them. It is up to them to speak in a language they are comfortable in and helps them communicate better. Because in this digital world I feel verbal communication is slowly going on mute. To be honest, what language they choose for verbal communication is least of my worries. I want my children to connect with me and not just talk to me.