Talking to Native Speakers – Part II

In my work with families, I also come up against the Native Speaker Myth. For families trying to plan for successful bilingualism for their children, this myth has different implications, but can be equally damaging.
One of the first things I do with each family I work with is discuss the necessity of setting language goals. For each language involved, the parents must decide what “level” of bilingualism they are aiming for with their children. For most parents, their first instinct is to say that they want their children to be “native speakers” of this language, or that language. However, research demonstrates that bilinguals are not necessarily “like” monolingual native speakers in either or any of their languages. Is this a bad thing? Are your bilingual children going to be somehow “lesser than” if they do not mirror the Native Speaker Model?
The answer, of course, is that “native speaker” is not the be-all and end-all of language use. Monolingual native speakers of a language only have one code to choose from, across all domains of their lives. No matter where they are or what they are doing, they are using their one language. Bilinguals use their two (or three or more) languages in some situations, but generally not across all situations. For example, my children go to school in French and live mostly in English, and shop in Dutch. This means that they can talk better about math in French (the oldest, anyway), better about table manners in English, and can best order patat in Dutch. If they were to switch around their language use patterns, and start going to school in English, they would appear, initially, less competent than the “native speakers” in their classes. However, they would be able to catch up with their peers, and do as well at school in English as in French, given a bit of time and attention. The pay-off, of course, would be that their level of fluency in French could well suffer, unless we were to change our family language plan accordingly, and switch to living mostly in French (hard work for Dad!).
And this then, is the bottom line. Bilinguals have domains of use in which they excel in the language they are used to using for each domain. They may well not appear as “native speakers” in domains that are not habitual for them. This absolutely does not mean that they have achieved a lower level in the language than the native speaker model, it is basic outcome of the fact that a bilingual is not two monolinguals in one brain, but rather one brain made up of different language parts. Given the myriads of benefits to being bilingual, I’m happy to ditch the native speaker model for my kids, in favour of a “fluent as they need to be” model.

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “Talking to Native Speakers – Part II

  1. Hello Eowyn!

    Sorry for an off-top…
    Could you please recommend the best book ever on bilingualism ?
    I would like to make a present for a young French mother, who got her baby Germany.

    Thanks!

    Celine

    • Hi Celine, I can definitely recommend a couple of books – I’m just off to a conference today but will make a short list as soon as I have a moment.

Comments

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s