If you have studied multilingualism for a while, you know that you can expect your children to mix the many languages they speak. You know that this is not a mistake, but a very creative way to communicate. But what does it mean, exactly, if your child mixes languages? Here are my own experiences.
Each language is a system. And while mixing words is the most common and visible way that children code-switch, this phenomenon goes well beyond that, and into the heart of any language. Language is more than just words. So, when children mix languages, they mix more than words.
Let me give you some examples. I noticed that Klara. She would start a word in one language, and then finish it with another. For example, in Polish there is an ending for diminutives (just like the Dutch –je, the German –lein or –chen, or the Spanish –ito/ita.), and it’s –ek/ka. So Klara would say: “Pferd, Esel, Schafek”- (“horse, donkey, “Schaf” is the German word for sheep and the Polish ending indicated that this was a little cute sheep).
Another way Klara sometimes mixes languages is by mixing the grammar. For example, to indicate something that happened in the past, Klara obviously used German grammar in a Polish sentence. How did I know? The tense she used does not exist in Polish! She would also use the Polish word order (or rather the lack of it) when speaking German- where the word order in a sentence is clearly specified.
And then, there is a third way: mixing accents. This is the most visible in the case of the “R”. You see, Klara pronounces the German “R” quite well- it’s a little bit like the French “R” if you don’t know German and want to know how it sounds. The Polish R, however, might be harder to learn, and I read that even monolingual Polish children don’t pronounce it well until they are around 5 years old. Till then, they might substitute “r” for “l”, pronounce R just like the Germans do, or leave it out.
The same thing happens with songs: at playgroup, we sing “Frere Jacque” in many languages, including Polish. So Klara would sometimes sing: “Panie Janie, Panie Janie, schläfst du noch”? Later, she might start using Polish sayings and metaphors in German or Dutch, or the other way round. Also, she might learn that some words can’t be translated- “gezellig”, anyone? Or some words just sound better when said in a particular language. And she will learn that some people just mix languages and others don’t.
It’s a fascinating process, and it’s also hilarious to watch. I can’t help but laugh at Klara’s very inventive linguistic creations. What about your children?