I didn’t always want to raise a family of bilingual children. When I was younger I assumed that I would just raise my kids like I was raised, which is to say monolingual. However, that was mostly because I wasn’t smart enough to have considered raising a multilingual child to be a possibility. It didn’t even cross my mind. Fortunately that thought did occur to me when I was in college thanks to some top-notch professors.
When I was an undergraduate student at Washington State University I took an intro to linguistics class. My professor was AWESOME! (Shout out to Sabine Davis, whom I adore). I loved going to that class to learn about different things like, “what’s the difference between a code and a language?”, “Why do most people stop ‘being able’ to learn new languages at or around puberty?”, and “What are the best ways to raise bilingual children?”. Since I write a blog that is based largely in applied linguistics, you are safe to assume that this course impacted me tremendously.
Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device
It was in this course that I first learned of Noam Chomsky, perhaps the most important and influential linguist in the world. In his many writings on the subject he talks about the innate human ability to learn languages. He argues that, despite their obvious superficial differences in lexicon and word order, languages are not that different in their internal structures. Furthermore, he stipulates that all humans (monolingual and bilingual children alike) are born with an intuitive knowledge of internal grammar. This instinct for children to learn and speak any language is referred to as a “Language Acquisition Device”.
One of the main arguments supporting the existence of a Language Acquisition Device, our innate ability to learn the languages around us, is what Chomsky calls the “poverty of the stimulus” 1. A “poverty of the stimulus” is a fancy way of saying that the language we hear around us isn’t perfect. There are constantly ‘mistakes’ in the language we hear, yet somehow we are able to acquire the language without difficulty.
What’s more is that we often know instinctively what is grammatically correct, even if the majority of our linguistic input is “wrong”. For instance, take a generic speaker from the American South. Let’s call him “Bill”. Bill uses the phrase, “I ain’t gonna eat a turkey sandwich.”
To a generic Northerner, this sounds like an incorrect use of grammar or vocabulary. Or Something. It sounds wrong.2 However, it’s highly likely that Bill could give you a ‘corrected’ version without any difficulty: “I’m not going to eat a turkey sandwich.” Bill knows the ‘right’ grammar, even though it’s not used as commonly in his geographic region.
Bilingual Children and Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device?
For me, the biggest takeaway is that we don’t have to be perfect in speaking the languages we want our kids to learn. And even if we use our native language, it’s pretty safe to assume that we won’t be perfect. Our children already possess the tools they need to acquire language. All it takes from us is the time and dedication to speak it with them in a meaningful way.
If you speak the language consistently with your children, they can’t help but acquire the language. Even if you speak with errors, you can still raise bilingual children.
1 Chomsky is an academic and part of his job is to obfuscate meaning with complex words and jargon. Although, to be honest, Chomsky’s work is quite approachable, despite the fact that he’s an academic.
2I hesitate to say this is ‘wrong’ or ‘improper’ speech, since it is just a different dialect of English than the one I speak. Who am I to determine what is ‘proper’ speech?