When Anu Goel’s son was born she wanted to make sure he would be able to speak to his grandparents in India in their own language.
“If there is no common language, there is not the same attachment,” she says.
At their Hornsby home in Sydney’s north, Anu speaks to her son in her first language, Punjabi, while her husband Manish speaks to him in Hindi.
“We believed he will automatically learn English language at school but a mother tongue he will only learn at home,” Anu says.
She was right. Her son, Priyansh, now 12, can understand and speak both his parents’ first languages, plus English.
While Anu was confident they were doing the right thing when Priyansh was a baby, some multilingual households worry about what’s the best approach.
Senior lecturer in applied linguistics at the University of Melbourne Chloé Diskin-Holdaway says it’s a common cause for concern for first-generation migrants in Australia.
Despite having a very multicultural and multilingual population, Dr Diskin-Holdaway says research has shown Australia is in fact monolingual in attitude.
“That monolingual mindset is typically embedded in everything from schools, to workplaces, to childcare centres, to maternal child health clinics, and it can be kind of a hard one to shift,” she says.
But she wants more parents to see being multilingual as their “superpower”.
What effect will it have on your child’s English skills?
Research shows that learning a parent’s first language at home actually helps children learn other languages as well.
It can also lead to better academic results, interesting career opportunities later in life, and add to their sense of identity and higher levels of empathy.
“If you nurture and develop your skills in your home language, so the language that your parents speak, you can speak other languages more quickly and you can learn them more efficiently,” Dr Diskin-Holdaway says.
Sydney speech pathologist Veronica Lau encourages parents to keep using their first language. She says it will provide a strong foundation for their children to learn other languages.
“It is always preferable for parents to give a good strong model of their home language because at school they will pick up [English] and they will be able to map it to their home language and learn English a lot easier,” she told a recent parenting forum held by the Northern Sydney Local Health District.
Will different languages at home delay a baby’s speech development?
Yes, it may well. But keep in mind milestones are set based on that monolingual attitude Dr Diskin-Holdaway mentioned first up.
“Bilingual kids typically start speaking later than monolingual kids. But once they do start speaking, they catch up really quickly.”
Children typically start saying their first words around 12 months, according to Australian parenting website Raising Children.
If a child is spoken to in two or more languages, it can take them longer to start spitting out a few words because they are sorting out different languages. It’s not that they’re confused, but they have more to process first.
While it might raise alarm bells if your child doesn’t start speaking when their monolingual peers do, it’s generally no cause for concern.
“Bilingualism is probably the reason and I would say to keep persisting with it, because eventually the positive effects outweigh the negative ones,” Dr Diskin-Holdaway says.
In Priyansh’s case, he started saying a few words at 13 months.
When both parents speak different home languages, like Anu and her husband, it’s also common for a child to be more fluent in one language over the other
They may develop unevenly depending on how much time each parent spends with the baby due to work and other commitments.
“The language of the parent who spends less time with the child might have a bit more trouble sticking,” says Dr Diskin-Holdaway.
But she says it’s worth persisting. Not only to pass on the language, but to do their best parenting.
“Generally parents will feel happier and more secure as a parent if they can do their parenting in their strongest language,” Dr Diskin-Holdaway says.
It’s not just the words and grammar that sink in, kids also pick up on the feeling of the language.
“If you can show your children that your language is something that you enjoy, it’s something that’s important for your heritage and it’s something that opens up new, exciting adventures … they learn to see that it brings you joy, and it’ll bring them joy as well,” Dr Diskin-Holdaway says.
As children get older, it can take a fair bit of commitment and time to keep it up.
“It’s almost like the piano lessons, kids sometimes feel a bit overwhelmed,” Dr Diskin-Holdaway says.
“They think it becomes yet another sort of thing that they have to practise and do when they just want to be playing with their friends.”
Rather than making it a slog for kids to practise their home languages, Dr Diskin-Holdaway suggests incorporating games, music, and face-to-face play dates with other multilingual families.
Mum Anu says it’s worth it.
“You have a chance to teach them your mother tongue, what is the harm? Learning different languages opens up doors.”
ABC Everyday in your inbox
Get our newsletter for the best of ABC Everyday each week
This content was originally published here.