Interview with Hanna Khoma on Bilingualism

Speaking multiple languages has many advantages but over the decades families may have been misinformed that bilingualism causes speech delays.

Below you’ll find the content from the interview between Kayla Chalko, Speech-Language Pathologist and Hanna Khoma a mother and YouTuber. You can check out her channel called English Fluency Journey.

Watch this interview between Kayla Chalko and Hanna Khoma about bilingualism in action!

Hanna Khoma: Hi, Kayla, how are you today?

Kayla Chalko: I’m doing great. Thanks so much for meeting with me online.

Hanna: Yes. Thank you so much. I’m so excited about this conversation. It’s literally a dream come true because you were one of those people I watched to get the idea about bilingualism and how to help my kid with the speech.

Kayla: Wow. That’s so nice to hear, my goodness. How old is your child?

Hanna: He is almost four now.

Kayla: Uh, what a sweet age. And he’s being raised bilingual.

Hanna: Yeah.

Kayla: Multiple languages. What languages?

Hanna: English and Ukrainian, and a little bit of Russian because a lot of people here speak Russian.

Kayla: Wow. How has that been going for you raising your child with three different languages?

Hanna: Well, it’s been going good, I’d say. Because he speaks two languages and he doesn’t have any problems with understanding both languages. And now he actually understands what a Ukrainian language and an English language are.

Kayla: He is able to differentiate and categorize those. That’s very good.

Hanna: Yeah. Right now, he often says things like, “Mommy, I said this in Ukrainian.”

Kayla: Oh. Wow. He can even name the language for you; that’s so neat.

Hanna: Yeah. He’s pretty impressive because he started speaking at about 14 months old and hasn’t stopped ever since. He’s very talkative.

Kayla: That’s good news. I love to hear that. Wow. So you were interested in raising your child with multiple languages, and as you searched online and found one of my videos?

Hanna: Yeah. And that was really helpful because, of course, I had my doubts and fears about this. But when I watched your videos and a lot of different people and gathered some information, I understood that I could do it. And that this is possible.

Kayla: Yeah. You totally can, and it’s a positive thing.

Hanna: Yeah. It’s a positive thing. So today, we’re going to be talking about raising bilingual kids and bilingualism in general. So let’s start with the most common concern people have: will raising my kid bilingual lead to speech or developmental delays?

Will raising my kid bilingual lead to speech or developmental delays?

Kayla: No, it won’t. That’s the very good news that I want to share with everybody out there. Neither bilingualism nor multilingualism leads to speech and developmental delays.

Hanna: Yeah. This is a very common concern, and this is what a lot of people asked me about and told me about, like, “You shouldn’t do that because it’s going to lead to some speech delays.”

Kayla: Yeah, that is misinformation. And even some pediatricians are still advising against raising a child with multiple languages. And if the pediatrician, for example, notices the child’s a little bit behind, they often do blame it on it is because of multiple languages, but that’s not true.

Hanna: Yeah. Well, I actually recently had a conversation with a friend of mine, and she asked me about raising her kid bilingual. And she asked me about all the aspects because she knows what I’m doing. And she said, “I am a little bit concerned because my daughter, she’s not speaking yet. She just kind of pronounced some separate words.” But her pediatrician said that she shouldn’t do that because it would lead to a speech delay. And she was like, “Okay, but I know that you do that. And it’s not a problem.”

Kayla: Okay, cool. So you’re an inspiration to her. Yeah. It’s frustrating. Pediatricians, they mean well, but a lot of times, they’re using old information, and now there’s been tons of research to support the fact that it doesn’t cause the delay and it’s not going to worsen a delay. That it has many benefits to it.

So as a language specialist, I encourage families to use their native language and introduce the language they’re using because they’re in that country. Bilingualism is positive, and it shouldn’t hold anybody back. So I wish that I could send an email to all their pediatricians saying, “Hey guys! Update! Please stop telling people not to be bilingual because that’s not the reason.”

Hanna: Yeah. Okay. Thank you. So another thing is that I was told and not once, and I’ve gotten a lot of comments that my son will be socially awkward, socially delayed, and he’s going to have communication problems with his peers. None of which happened, by the way.

Kayla: I think that’s good. Yeah.

Hanna: So, but have you encountered such situations where young children who spoke one language with their parents at home and another language with their peers had communication problems?

Kayla: No, that definitely wouldn’t be the cause of social challenges. Now, I can’t imagine a situation where maybe here in California, we have a lot of immigrant families from Mexico coming, and if they only speak Spanish. Now, the kid is, let’s say, five or six years old, and all the language that’s being told at school is English. That can cause some challenges.

But if you’re raising a child from the get-go as bilingual and they’re able to switch between languages, they have a strong understanding and both sets of languages. I can imagine that being any cause, and I haven’t read any research to support that kind of reasoning for social difficulties. And to the contrary – being bilingual strengthens your mental flexibility. You are a quicker problem-solver because you’ve been growing your brain simultaneously with two different sets of languages, different rules, different pronunciations, and it’s giving you a cognitive advantage. So, not true about that. And I’m glad to hear that your child has had issues in that area.

Hanna: Yeah. He hasn’t had any issues. He switches between the languages pretty quickly right now.

Kayla: Nice.

Hanna: So he, for example, he’s, he’s talking to me in English and then with my mom- to my mom in Ukrainian. And he– and he translates like, “Mom, grandma’s said this.” Oh, well, of course, right now, he speaks more in English because I’m his mom, and he’s communicating with me more than with everyone else, but still, it’s not a problem.

Kayla: Definitely. See? That’s such a beautiful thing. He realizes the more natural language to speak with mom versus grandma, and he can easily switch between those.
What a strength for this kiddo.

Hanna: Yeah. Well, this is amazing to me. I’m very, very amazed by him all the time.

Kayla: Wow.

Will a child be confused by having to use two languages?

Hanna: Okay. So the next question is, will a child confuse languages and mix words from both languages, and will they be confused in general by using two languages?

Kayla: No, that’s not a cause for confusion. Like we said before, with your child being able to switch, he’s not showing any issues even at four years old. Maybe getting stuck every once in a while, like, “Hmm, what is that word in English?” And, but everyone gets stuck on words. I get stuck on words, and I only speak English. So that’s a normal moment to get confused, but it’s not going to confuse.

And the switching between languages even within the same sentence is a completely normal and traditional thing for people who are bilingual to do. Here in California, Spanish and English speakers mix within the same sentence all the time. And I think that’s what makes communication so rich and so interesting as we don’t have to use all the same language within one sentence. We can use some of our home language and some of the environmental language where we’re living, and that makes it so beautiful and still unique.

Hanna: Yeah. Well, that’s right. That’s unique. Very good point. Yeah. So we shouldn’t be embarrassed by this in any way. It’s unique. Yeah. Okay. So our usual situation is when people immigrate to another country, speak their native language at home, and then a child learns the country’s language outside their home. And that’s how they are raised to be bilingual. So would you say that this is an ideal situation?

Kayla: I would say it’s very common. That is probably the most common reason for a child needing to learn another language. The ideal is a child being introduced to both languages at the same time from the get-go. But this magic timeframe for learning multiple languages is between zero and five years.

That’s where kids can just bam, pick it up at amazing rates, and sound more like a native speaker if they’re introduced to it before five. Five is where we find. After that, they’re not going to sound as much as a native speaker naturally, and it may not come as quickly and may not be as solid as in like, if you learn the language before five if you learn two languages before five, you’re probably going to remember those languages.

They’re going to be [inaudible] for a long time. But if you’re learning after, they’re not solidified within your brain as much. It doesn’t mean that it’s not possible. It’s obviously possible. Adults learn multiple languages, but the best time period is between zero and five years of age.

Yeah. If you were to introduce a brand new language to your child, like Mandarin, which is not a native language for you. After age five would be better because then he’d have a solid understanding and grasp of English and Ukrainian first.

Having a solid grasp of any one or multiple languages will help him learn more languages later. People are better skilled at learning new grammatical rules and trying new sounds after they’ve mastered at least one language set. So if you’ve got two languages that you’re proficient in as the parent, then introducing those from the beginning with the child is excellent and supportive.

What level of proficiency should the parents English be at to teach a child English?

Hanna: In the case of my subscribers, they learn English themselves, and they are non-native speakers, just like my husband and me. But they want to teach their kids English. So I was going to ask you what level their English should be to do that? Or is it generally a bad idea, or maybe it’s better to have a native speaker around after all if they want to do that?

Kayla: Excellent question. Yeah. I wouldn’t say that it’s bad, but we can think of better and best what’s better and best. So for a child to give them the best chance at being an excellent language use is to provide them with the best example of a language.

So if I’m a native English speaker, my best example of language is English to a child. But let’s say I’ve moved to Spain and now I want to teach them European Spanish. That would not be my best example of language because I’d be a beginner. Yes, I could choose to teach a child both languages, but I wouldn’t be conversational with them in Spanish, and our communication would be broken. My pronunciation would probably be off as well. So I wouldn’t want to focus on that for my two-year-old because that’s really not the correct example I want to give my child.

Once they start mastering that at least at a four-year-old level, then introducing another new language at that time would be better because they’ve already mastered at the preschool level one language. So an A+ in one language is going to equal better skills in another language.

Hanna: Okay. Yes, I see. So if you have a very good level of English, then you can do that.

Kayla: Yes. It’s hard to determine exactly what level for everyone. And sometimes you have to start teaching your child English because that’s what your life demands right now. And I don’t want people to feel embarrassed or feel their language isn’t good enough. Do you know what I mean? I’m always a fan of supporting new learning and in any way. I want parents to be brave and not feel like they have to be perfect speakers of any language. But if their native language is Russian, let’s say, then giving that child the majority of Russian would be beneficial for the child’s learning.

Hanna: Right. Okay. The common practice here is to teach the children English to give them to school for classes, like at four. They are so starting from the age of four. And would it be a good idea for a parent when they start teaching their kids English and start to try to communicate with them in English at the same time even if their level is not very good?

Kayla: Yeah.

Hanna: So that would be a better idea in this case. Like to have classes and then communicate with them.

Kayla: Yeah. That sounds like an appropriate decision. Yeah. But if the parents can use a complete, correct sentence, then that’s great. But if it’s a real struggle and broken and not coming naturally, then it will not be as helpful to the child as continuing in your native language.

Are there any strategies for raising bilingual kids and which one is the best, for example?

Kayla: We all have different learning styles, but in general, raising a child from the get-go with two languages that a parent is already proficient at, that’s going to give you excellent results. And that child’s going to master those two languages pretty well. Another strategy for raising a bilingual child is to include materials in the home in both languages that you’re teaching, like books in both languages.

Hanna: Yeah. Well, this is what we are doing. So I actually have a couple of bilingual books in Ukrainian and English as well. So he loves when I read to him. Like we can read five books in a row at once.

Kayla: Nice. That’s good to hear. I have a pro tip for you, though for using bilingual books, and I didn’t learn this until a few years into studying. But when teaching a child to be bilingual, it’s best to speak a word or sentence in one language and then pause before giving the translation in the other language.

There needs to be a pause, and there’s a lot of research on why this pause is so important. So, saying sentences in English, pause, and then in Ukrainian is better than English-Ukrainian right after each other. The child’s brain will learn better if there’s a slight pause in between the translation so that the brain can categorize.

Hanna: Yeah, thank you for that. And I noticed that in general, it’s better to speak a little slower to your child.

Kayla: Yeah. So true. Yes, exactly.

Hanna: Because sometimes we’re like trying to explain something, and it comes out really fast. And then they’re looking at you like blinking their eyes like, and you can see that they didn’t understand a word you just said.

Kayla: Yeah, definitely. And it goes even for adults. We don’t always realize it. But if I’m asking you to explain something totally brand new to me, like how to fix a radio or something random, I’d rather you tell me slowly. That’s new information. And if it’s in a language that I’m not like I was strong in, please give it to be a little bit slower. So that’s just an excellent point for learning in general.

Bilingualism and Speech Delay: Your Next Steps

Is your child being raised in a bilingual home and is showing signs of speech-language delay? Parents should first contact a speech-language pathologist who is trained in servicing culturally and linguistically diverse children. If a bilingual speech therapist is not readily available, you may need an interpreter.

Guidelines for best practice suggest that evaluation and treatment in a child’s home language help build a stronger foundation for further speech and language development.

The earlier you get in touch with a speech-language pathologist, the sooner you can get your child the treatment they need to develop their language skills.

Are you looking for more help? Consider my online course called, How to Teach a Toddler to Talk. Now available with English and Spanish subtitles.

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