Bilingual children and language development – Interference from the dominant language

I mentioned in my last post that my daughter, who is growing up bilingual and is now three and four months, does actively translate between her languages.

I’ll explain a bit more here about why I think this is interesting, how I know she’s doing it and I’ll give some examples.

Firstly, I think this is interesting because, as I described here, up until now I assumed that bilinguals acquired their two languages entirely organically and independently of one another, that is to say, with no interference in either direction.

I know that my daughter actively translates from one language to another because she forms language that she has heard numerous times in English and adjusts it to mirror Portuguese in some way.

For example, she has heard ‘let me see‘ and ‘let’s see‘ countless times in English. In Portuguese this would be formed ‘deixa eu ver’ (where the words singly would be ‘let – I – see‘) and ‘vamos ver’ (‘we will see‘). I have never heard our daughter say anything other than “let’s see“, but instead of saying ‘let me see‘, she almost always says “let I see“.

Given that this is something she would never have heard anybody say, the only explanation that occurs to me is that at some point she was trying to remember how to form the phrase in English, couldn’t quite remember, looked to Portuguese for some help and has since internalised this hybrid phrase as regular English usage.

Sometimes she speaks in English when she is playing by herself and sometimes in Portuguese. This involves long conversations between her and her toys and conversations amongst the toys themselves.

Recently I heard her saying that one of her toys was “running away of an animal” which she would never have heard anyone else say.

To borrow from my library analogy (described here), I think that the following is happening: She is going to the front desk and asking the librarian (her brain) to look in the Language Y section of the library for the word ‘from‘. The librarian goes instead to the word ‘de’ in the Language X section and finds that ‘de’ can be rendered in Language Y as either ‘from‘ or ‘of‘. The librarian decides that ‘of‘ would be the best fit in this context and returns to the front desk to present ‘of‘ for use in this sentence. The librarian is wrong.

Since the librarian is still a little unreliable at this stage I think I will need to start correcting her, otherwise this will also become internalised as regular English usage because presumably her repetition of the phrase will eventually remove any doubt she had that it wasn’t quite right.

Of course I can only tell that there are internal connections between her languages and that there is influence and interference in at least one direction because she makes mistakes that a monolingual child would not. Please feel free to correct me if you happen to know I am wrong here!

I am pretty sure that questions of over-generalising or misapplying grammatical rules are down to the child’s inherent logic, whether monolingual or multilingual, but I don’t think that explains what is happening here. I think that here her grammatical mistakes in one language are caused by direct interference from the other, or more generally by the interplay between them.

On the one hand, I am fascinated by the view into the process that her language mistakes and discoveries provide me with. On the other hand, I don’t want to set her up for endless correction at a later date because I was too busy listening to and thinking about language processes to support her unreliable mental librarian.

I’d love to hear your thoughts! In your experience is there any interplay between acquired languages (rather than learned languages)? Do you use any illustrations to describe mental processes for language development?

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