The Truth About Bilingualism and Multilingualism…

You might have noticed children mixing up the words in different languages within the same sentence if they are from families where more than one language is spoken. There is a special term for this and it is called: Code Switching.

The mix-up of the languages may make a child seem confused, delayed or provide a perception to others that they are not able to sufficiently understand either language. This is far from the truth!

It is the natural path that children take to learn more than one language and process both or even more than two languages. They are just absorbing as much as they can with both or all languages simultaneously. When a child reaches around the ages 4-6, they are able to figure out which language should be spoken to best suit their communication partner’s understanding.

So what do we do if a child code-switches between languages in a sentence or phrase?

A lot of older research leaned towards the idea that ‘one parent should speak one language’ but this approach seems unnatural to apply in real life situations.

Some tips include:

  • Rephrasing the sentence or phrase that they said using one language only and then questioning them ‘is that what you mean?’ – this technique is used to show that you mostly can understand the child but want to clarify what they mean but at the same time you are modelling one way that the child could say it. This strategy could be something that could be used especially in the day care setting where the staff may not know the second language the child is speaking but could make an evaluated assumption about what the child could be meaning.
  • Repetition – this involves a parent or adult just repeating a sentence in one language as a model. This requires no questioning to the child and no assumptions; it is a simple straightforward model.
  • Code-switch as well! – This may seem like a strange strategy because you are wondering, how is a child meant to pick up just one language properly then? In actual fact, this is the most naturalistic approach because this is what many bilingual speakers do in reality. It is probably best to combine this strategy with the strategies provided above.

When should I be worried about a child?

  • When they are mixing up grammatical structures of both languages – in this case, definitely model one language’s correct grammatical structure using the ‘repetition‘ strategy.
  • When a child isn’t really able to speak or use language correctly in one language itself but seems to know bits and pieces of another language: in this case, focus on the ‘repetition‘ strategy and show them models of one language at a time.

Overall, however, these strategies should be used as a guide but it is important to evaluate the situation your child is in. It’s important to assess the environment a child is in, who their main communication partners are, how old they are (e.g. a higher focus on English as they approach the school-age) and what would make them feel most comfortable.


Köppe, R. and Meisel, J. (1995) Code-switching in bilingual first language
acquisition. In L. Milroy and P. Muysken (eds) One Speaker, Two Languages:
Cross-disciplinary Perspectives on Code-Switching (pp. 276-301). Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Leave a Comment

Your Name *
Email *