A friend of mine recently told me that her daughter, three years old, is trying to figure out what it means to speak a different language. She asked why she doesn't speak French, when her cousins do. Her comments and questions are a window into how the young child's mind works with language. It's one thing to grow up always hearing the same sounds, which then form words, which then form sentences. It's natural. The mind absorbs it and only later understands the grammatical rules, spelling and other components of language.
It's another thing to grow up hearing two or more languages consistently; and yet another thing to spend your first few years with a "maternal language" and then to begin to be exposed to another language or two. How does a young child understand this? How do they make sense of multiple sets of communication?
I'm now experiencing this with my son Noah, also three years old. He has taken a sudden interest in all things French. As a baby, he never said "more" but always "encore". We tell him "doucement" instead of "gentle." And there are a few other, random vocabulary words. He's probably always considered them part of his English set. But recently, he's started to ask, "How do you say...in French?" He repeats it, with the sweetest accent, part Anglophone but also part Noah, as he has a slight lisp and some lingering baby pronunciation.
I wonder how all this is working out in his head. What does it mean to speak another language? Why aren't they always interchangeable? Except, in his world, they often ARE interchangeable. He can use them both and be understood. In fact, we often applaud his efforts, and strangers think it's cute, when he mixes the two languages.
Of course, it's not a new experience. Lots of people have grown up in multilingual environments, and they sort it out just fine in the end. They often have an ease with language that baffles unilingual people. They also have a greater ease with music and math. Those studies have been done. But I'd love to see an experiment that somehow measures and puts into words how a three-year-old quantifies and qualifies multiple languages in their head.
The beauty and wonder of it all is fascinating—that much I can see on my son's face.