Multilingual families

In many families it has become common to speak two languages at home. This situation is all the more common when the parents come from different regions or countries. The Federal Statistical Office (FSO) has established that 16% of the population aged 15 and over in Switzerland speak at least two main languages, almost all of them one of the national languages.

But what about when three or more languages are used at home? This is most often the case when the child speaks the mother tongues of both parents at home and has to use a different idiom at school.

The adaptability and flexibility of the toddler’s brain are important. But it is common for the child to be more comfortable in one language than the other.

In school-age children, confusion between them may occur, and grammatical errors may creep into spoken and/or written sentences.

If a toddler speaks French or German at school, he or she may also prefer this new language to the one he or she uses with his or her peers.

Whether in childhood or adolescence, there is always a time when a preference for one of the languages learned emerges. Making sure that the others are not neglected so as not to risk losing their mastery of them then depends very much on the parents… and on the efforts that their child is willing to make to remain multilingual. The balance between the languages is not easy to maintain and can only be achieved if the child has the opportunity to express himself or herself regularly in each of them. One thing is certain: while practice is necessary to retain a language, a child or adolescent should never be forced to do so. This would be the best way to discourage them.

While the advantages of speaking several languages are undeniable, specialists recommend avoiding the introduction of a language that does not really belong in the family. If the child hears too many different languages, there is a risk that he or she will acquire very little knowledge of each of them.

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