Non-native bilingualism: pros and cons


More and more families , without being native, speak to their children in English. This is non-native bilingualism, which is one more manifestation of the growing involvement and support of parents in the education of their children.

Speaking in English at an early age is intended to emulate native bilingual family environments and, thus, ensure that children acquire the language in a more natural and effective way, just as it occurs with the mother tongue.

In this way, they would be provided with the tools to compete successfully in a globalized and multicultural world, in which the command of foreign languages ​​and, especially, of the English language, is associated with the achievement of advantages on the social level, academic, work and cultural.

Is it advisable to speak English to your children even if you are not a native?

Receptive to any sound

Babies are ready to identify sounds and lexical and grammatical elements of any language, but as they get older, they select the elements of one in particular and become less receptive to others . For this reason, the advantage of early bilingual exposure is that English, or the chosen language, is “acquired” rather than learned. That is, it is incorporated naturally and effortlessly, as occurs with the mother tongue.

Some parents fear that the English input they provide to their children is not adequate and may pass on grammatical errors or poor pronunciation. However, studies show that one of the areas most benefited by non-native bilingualism is precisely pronunciation.

In addition to the greater predisposition of children to new sounds, the use of that language in the digital sphere (songs, series in English, children’s videos, etc.) usually complements this practice and helps explain the positive effects of this practice.

Will they mix languages?

Some families worry when children raised in non-native bilingualism mix languages ​​or start speaking later. However, in the very short term, these drawbacks dissipate and, on the other hand, mastering several languages ​​brings benefits in memory, language processing capacity, metalinguistic awareness and cognitive flexibility.

It must be taken into account that, although it depends on several factors such as the quantity, quality and variety of the input , it is difficult to reach a bilingual or native level. Yes, significant improvements are observed, especially in oral skills, and there is no need to worry if the children prefer to answer in their mother tongue, because it is part of the process.

A low affective filter

As an additional benefit, an early contact with English is provided in a playful and natural way, associating this language with daily and pleasant moments, so that the affective filter decreases (responsible for enabling or hindering the learning processes, depending on the attitude, feelings, mood and other emotional factors of the learner).

When the affective filter is high, the learner feels anxiety and stress. When positive perceptions towards English are generated, the affective filter decreases, anxiety disappears, self-confidence increases and deep learning and self-esteem are favored.

More and more studies reveal the connections between affective factors and learning, especially languages, so this effect is more relevant than one might think.

Useful strategies

Each family has to decide which is the strategy that best suits their circumstances, and what is their level of the chosen language and predisposition to implement this practice inside and outside the home.

Parents who have a good level can try OPOL ( one parent, one language , each parent, one language), so that one of the parents speaks exclusively in the chosen language and the other in Spanish; or MLAH ( minority language at home ), which consists of creating an immersive environment in the foreign language at home, while, outside of it, there is exposure to the majority language of the social environment.

Time & Place (time and place) is a less intensive strategy, but one that also displays positive effects. It is about using English in significant places or moments of daily life, such as during the bath, when shopping at the supermarket, when dressing and undressing, at bedtime when reading a story, etc.

There are also other practices, such as the so-called “bilingual siblings” through which older siblings communicate in English with younger ones.

Other strategies include the presence of native people at home, either intensively through au pairs , or once or twice a week, so that they play with the children, teach them songs, tell them stories, etc.

As for practices outside the home, it is worth mentioning participation in play groups with native families and attendance at local or international summer camps.

Even when?

Various studies have observed that many times these practices are interrupted or reduced, due to rejection by children, around 3–6 years of age or in adolescence, because both their autonomy from the family and the influence of the environment increase.

In these cases, the practice must be subject to the will of the children and family harmony. Although some families feel that they could have done more, most understand that it has fulfilled its role and that the value of the practice lies in having implemented it in the first years of life.

Affective aspects

Non-native bilingualism is a complex sociolinguistic practice that requires great effort and personal commitment. In addition, it can lead to imperfect communication, especially in the emotional field. The mother tongue is loaded with a series of affective values ​​that are often lost when speaking in a foreign language.

For some families, this is an advantage, as it can help improve control of negative emotions. By not quickly finding the words to scold or express anger in their linguistic repertoire, parents have more time to assess the situation and end up becoming less angry.

But the expression of affection can also be compromised. Some parents assume this cost, while others make the practice more flexible and use the mother tongue directly.

Sometimes, the fact of using a language that is not in the social environment creates a special affective bond between parents and children, especially in childhood. In other cases, children feel different or the family environment (grandparents, uncles) or social environment itself can criticize this practice and generate situations of emotional exhaustion, especially in parents.

In any case, there are no studies that show a negative effect of non-native bilingualism on the development of emotional or linguistic competence in one’s own native language.

Planning and perseverance

The success of this practice depends on many factors, such as the level of the parents’ target language, their teaching skills, the time they have available, the agreement of all family members, and the possibility of contact with native people. among others.

In order for non-native bilingualism to display the benefits that can be obtained, it is necessary to analyze in advance the resources that are available, carefully plan the practices, be constant and patient, and always put the well-being of children and families first.

Author Bio: Esther Nieto Moreno de Diezmas is Full Professor, Director of the Department of Modern Philology at the University of Castilla-La Mancha