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Our 16 month old son is just starting to talk. He understands a lot and he's lately saying a number of simple 1 syllable English words (cheese, shoes, pea, cat, dog, duck etc). However, my husband and his close relatives are Indian so we would both like our son to also know Hindi. My husband speaks to our son only in Hindi.

Our son hasn't yet said any Hindi words but when we count up his English words he says somewhere between 25 and 30 words, mostly nouns. Nearly all of them have only one syllable. When my husband thinks of the Hindi word for these things they almost all have two syllables.

Our son does seem to understand well when my husband speaks to him but we are worried that the seemingly more complex nature of the words in Hindi will make it more difficult for him to pick up and that he'll be much behind in his Hindi compared to English. He's already at a disadvantage in Hindi because we live in England with not many people around us who speak Hindi.

Does anyone have experience of bringing up a child with two languages where one seems to be more difficult than the other? Might we be worrying unnecessarily and once he gets the hang of words with more than one syllable, he'll start saying more Hindi words? How can we encourage him to speak more difficult words when he has the option of something simpler?

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    Do you speak Hindi as well? (not necessarily do you speak hindi to your child, but I mean, do you know how? What level of fluency do you have?) – Joe May 20 '15 at 21:53
  • I speak very little but I understand quite a bit. I can understand what my husband says to my son at the moment and am hoping that my Hindi will also improve as I (hopefully) hear them speak to each other – MiniMum May 20 '15 at 22:06
  • Multi language kids tend to be behind in linguistic development, but ultimately it is so much more beneficial to learn multiple languages, especially when young. He's only 16 months so it's hard to say whether or not he will be behind at all when school time comes. There was a kid at my daughter's preschool who is 4 and speaks 3 languages as well as sign language. So while it's common to be behind, it's not a guarantee. I would continue as you are. At this point I doubt he even understands the idea that they are 2 languages or that one is "harder" than the other. – Kai Qing May 21 '15 at 0:01
  • I guess it's the stage he's at where this particular aspect of Hindi seems more difficult i.e. more words have two syllables and he can only say words with one. Does anyone have any comments on the progression from one syllable to multi syllable words that might help us here? It's our first child so we haven't seen this process in action ourselves – MiniMum May 21 '15 at 15:53
  • I read a study (sorry no links) that dealt with language acquisition in different languages, and it showed the more consonant sounds a language has (aka harder) the slower the vocabulary acquisition - but kids were caught up fast (I think around 2-3 - it was just in the very beginning). We speak Danish (many consonant sounds) at home and English in daycare/preschool (medium consonant sounds) and both our kids had different rates of learning words in the two languages. For some things our oldest used the English word for a long time since the Danish was harder, but now he uses it (at 4). Keepup – Ida May 21 '15 at 17:54
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If your son has an immediate family member who only converses with him in Hindi, he will become a fluent speaker of Hindi. The language development may progress a bit more slowly than his English, with more people speaking English to him, but he will learn the language.

However, as he gets more verbal, your son may not initially seem interested in learning Hindi. He may speak to his father in English. If your father responds, your son may not master speaking Hindi (although he will still develop fairly good listening comprehension). However, if your husband insists that your son speak to him in Hindi, your son will master the language. If he insists on English, your husband should just tell him, gently (and in Hindi, obviously), "Please tell me in Hindi."

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I fully agree with @Buzz.

There are some answers on this topic at Teaching a third language to a bilingual toddler which I think will be useful for you.

Which language is more difficult is somewhat subjective, for example you and I would probably perceive Chinese as being more difficult than English, but for a child growing up in China with parents who consistently speak to him in Chinese, English would be perceived as more difficult! However, I don't want to express an opinion about Hindi specifically, since I know nothing about it.

I agree that not having many people to communicate with in a target language, does makes things more challenging. Perhaps a little less so in the early years, but this can become more of a problem after beginning school.

Here's how your husband can elicit some utterances in Hindi. First, pick some easy to pronounce words that express concepts he's interested in. Point to it (in real life or in a book). Ask (in Hindi), How does Daddy say it?

This is a tried and true trick! It's a little early right now to use it, and also, I need to warn you that this is a trick you don't want to over-use!

Now, here's another technique. Say your son is talking on the phone or over Skype with one of your in-laws. In the early years, chances are good he's going to mix his two languages. That's okay. You just hover nearby and every time he says an English word, you prompt him with the Hindi word. If he manages to repeat it, he will get some lovely positive feedback from the other end of the phone line. You'll probably need to play this assistive role for some time. The other thing you can do to facilitate these phone calls is to suggest topics for conversation. There are two ways you can do this:

  • if the conversation starts to flag, but you think your son still has some phone energy left, suggest a topic to him. For example, say the two of you went to the park in the morning and saw a duck, and he was pretty excited about the duck, and suppose he knows the word in Hindi for duck. (Or you cheated a little and looked it up, or called your husband at work to ask for the vocabulary items you would need for your phone call.) Back to the little pause in the conversation. At this point, you just say to your son one word, [duck] (in Hindi). That will get him off and running, hopefully. He will say [duck]! Your mother-in-law (or whoever) will repeat the word, excitedly, and there's the feedback loop. Or if she didn't understand him, you lean a little closer to the phone, and repeat the word more clearly, or make a simple sentence (Pidgin Hindi is okay for a doting grandmother), such as "Saw duck in park!"

  • Give the relative a heads-up ahead of time, by suggesting a topic of conversation. Make a short private phone call and say, "Ask about the park." And so on. You can prepare yourself a cheat sheet (phonetic if necessary).

If your in-laws are not monolingual, it would be very helpful if you could get them to refrain from speaking any English to your son.

It would be great if you could find or form a Hindi play group. If it meets at a time when your husband can't take your son, that's okay, you can take him. The other parents will admire your support for your son's Hindi, and will understand if you are rather quiet.

am hoping that my Hindi will also improve as I (hopefully) hear them speak to each other.

Yes, this does happen! Especially around the dinner table.

Oh, one more technique to share. When your husband reads your son a story, it can be a picture book written in English (or any other language). Your husband should simply come up with his own text, in Hindi, to go with the story. His text absolutely does not need to be a precise translation of the original text. This approach will work until your son gets to the level of books that have a whole paragraph per page.

  • Thanks for your tips, they are useful for when he's a bit older. I think perhaps we're getting ahead of ourselves a bit and things will start to work as his language progresses further – MiniMum May 21 '15 at 15:56
  • @MiniMum - possibly. Our kids are fully biligual, but at age before 2, they were slower picking up English than their first language (we separated with 1 parent speaking English one non-English, and grandparents did a mix). That evened out by 3-4 – user3143 May 21 '15 at 18:54

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