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1 The complex phenomenon of bilingualism is a topical issue that is generating much discussion and debate. The question of bilingualism often comes up in relation to children of migrants, who are exposed to linguistic plurality from a very young age. There have been numerous studies on the subject, but very few focus on the language trajectories of these children and their families or on the ways the mother tongue is acquired and transmitted. Of course, mother tongue transmission is more than a linguistic act and depends on several factors: individual, collective, conscious, and unconscious. Our aim in this article is to illustrate the importance of mother tongue transmission in a migratory situation using the example of Soninke-French bilingualism in children of migrants.

Bilingual people, bilingualisms

2 The term bilingual generally refers to a person who speaks two languages. Nevertheless, it is more difficult to determine the minimum competence required in each language in order to qualify as bilingual. Generally, definitions of bilingualism are based on the bilingual individual’s competence in the languages in question. The different types of bilingualism can be characterized according to the order in which the languages were acquired, differences in cognitive representations in the verbal domain, or the level of competence in each language (Wallon et al. 2008). There are thus multiple definitions of bilingualism. Some tend to emphasize either the subjective (psychological) aspects or the objective (linguistic) aspects of bilingualism. For Grosjean (1992), the bilingual person is not two monolingual people but a whole person with her own linguistic competence. Thus, no two bilingual people are the same. Bilingualism must, therefore, be seen as a singular creation that is unique to each individual. Indeed, researchers now treat bilingualism as a complex, multifactor practice that cannot be restricted to one single definition: there are as many bilingualisms as there are bilingual individuals and plurilingual situations. Our approach retains this idea of the dynamic, unique nature of each bilingualism.

The positive aspects of bilingualism

3 Contrary to preconceived ideas, bilingualism has many positive aspects. As Marie Rose Moro points out, “children can acquire two languages simultaneously or in succession with no cognitive difficulty” (2012, 108). [1] Indeed, Bialystok (2009) has shown that bilingual people perform better than monolingual people in tasks involving the analysis and synthesis of information. Moreover, this performance is maintained over time. It seems that the cognitive function of bilingual people supports the reinforcement of certain skills, including in elderly individuals. Elsewhere, Lutz and Crist (2009) have shown that bilingual children do better at school than monolingual children. They also emphasize that bilingual children who can read and write in their mother tongue will perform better in their second language. Moreover, in the same study, they showed that a supportive family environment helps these children, while familialism (where family relations are exclusive and prioritized above all other social relations) is associated with academic difficulties (Di Meo et al. 2014).

4 Lemhöfer et al. (2004) looked at how bilingual individuals perform in a third language compared to how monolingual individuals perform in a second language. Their results reveal that, in contrast to monolingual people, bilingual people do not need to translate concepts from one language to another to produce a response. In effect, they are able to access different language registers and so have greater cognitive and metalinguistic availability. Bilingual people thus find it easier to learn a third language than monolingual people do to learn a second language. In the same vein, Abdelilah-Bauer (2006) showed that the coexistence of two linguistic systems in a bilingual individual enables the development of “metalinguistic” skills, improving phonological awareness and performance in categorization tasks. In effect, bilingual children must learn to organize their languages into two separate systems at a very early age, thus teaching them very quickly that there are multiple ways of saying/naming things. Bilingual children, therefore, have greater communicative sensitivity (Baker 1996). In other words, they are more attentive to the needs of their interlocutor and more sensitive to the non-verbal aspects of communication. Bilingualism also “encourages verbal and non-verbal creation and fosters greater flexibility of mind: you realize that there can be several solutions to a problem, that there are sometimes discrepancies of meaning, that people make mistakes, that you need to keep searching to find the best translation” (Moro 2012, 120). Meanwhile, Toppelberg et al. (2006) showed that among the children of Spanish-speaking migrants in the United States, psychopathological disorders are less frequent in English-Spanish bilingual children than in monolingual children, whether English-speaking or Spanish-speaking. Finally, it is increasingly becoming clear that mother tongue attrition—the reduction or depletion of initially acquired language skills (Serre and Bennabi-Bensekhar 2005)—can in itself be a risk factor for children’s development.

5 Thus, plurilingualism is in no way an obstacle to children’s language development; it is rather the fact of losing one’s mother tongue that is a process of impoverishment.

Bilingualism among children of migrants

6 Children of migrants are referred to as “allophones” by French-speaking professionals (Baubet and Moro 2009). Allophone in this sense means a person whose mother tongue is different to that of the environment in which she lives. The bilingualism of these children is generally early, sequential, and can be divided into two categories: active or passive. Active bilingualism refers to a situation where the languages are used in verbal communication, while passive bilingualism is when the child lives in a bilingual context without actually using the languages herself (Serre and Bennabi-Bensekhar 2005).

7 In France, “only around 10% of children of migrants aged between six and eight years have additive bilingualism, which is when they think, speak, write, and dream in either of their languages depending on the context” (Moro 2012, 104). A child may have additive bilingualism at the age of three and see the trend reversed by the age of seven. In that case, the bilingualism would be in favor of French rather than the mother tongue. In effect, “the influence of school is such that children master their second language perfectly but understand their mother tongue without being able to speak it or only have access to some of its registers, generally the oral and affective registers” (ibid.). This situation is termed subtractive bilingualism. This is the case for the bilingualism of 40% of children of migrants (ibid.). The preferred use of French over the mother tongue can also be explained partly by the process of acculturation and partly by the devaluation of the family language. Nevertheless, the term subtractive bilingualism is not entirely fair because it does not really take children’s competences into account. It seems preferable to borrow the term “partial bilingualism” proposed by Moro (ibid., 106), because “even partial mastery of some [registers of the mother tongue] is already a significant amount. On the affective level, at least, it can be enough to do the child a lot of good, on condition that she views her mother tongue in a ‘good enough’ light, in Donald Winnicott’s sense—in other words, that she does not see it as something shameful or hidden” (ibid.). But this type of bilingualism can sometimes lead to mother tongue attrition and/or the choice of monolingualism. The phenomenon of attrition is affected by age but also by the frequency and quality of verbal overtures addressed to the child; it can result in the total loss of an initially acquired language (Rezzoug et al. 2007).

8 The literature also describes the concept of “semilingualism,” which is the result of non-access to additive bilingualism. The bilingualism of children of migrants is, in this case, seen in restrictive terms. The notion of semilingualism is itself debatable because there is not one bilingualism but multiple bilingualisms. Children of migrants, like all children who grow up in bilingual environments, create their own singular and plural identity that accommodates their diverse affiliations. Cultural transmission within the family—a privileged source for the process of identity construction—is thus a crucial element when analyzing the child’s bilingualism. Transmission in migrant families is not always easy for parents and can sometimes have repercussions on the level of investment in the languages spoken. Investment in the language is strongly correlated with socioaffective factors that depend on the child’s particular lived experience and the value she places on each language, a value that is conveyed within the family on the one hand, and in school and society on the other. Bilingualism is thus “always an individual experience that is more of an adventure than a linguistic program” (Wolf-Fedida 2010, 11). Each bilingual child develops her own language trajectory within the family, in a unique way and by taking risks.

9 Moreover, it is important to retain the mother tongue and to keep it alive because it is a marker of identity and very often the only linguistic connection between the child and her family. Promotion of mother tongues helps to raise self-esteem in individuals who are thus able to show off their linguistic and cultural skills and feel part of a linguistic and cultural history (Di Meo et al. 2014). Finally, language generates a sense of belonging; it is a link to our ancestors, our history, and all those who speak the same language as us.

Children of migrants, languages, and school

10 Starting school is an important step in the development of all children. Children may experience it as a sort of disruption, as it involves a change of environment and separation from the mother. This disruption is particularly intense for children of migrants, for whom starting school means entering a new world and a new cultural universe. For Nicoladzé (1993), starting school, which corresponds to a rupture of the child’s fusion with her parents and of parental models, can be experienced by the child as a time of insecurity, or even trauma or abandonment (if she does not understand its meaning and significance). The child’s landmarks—affective, behavioral, environmental—no longer have any resonance in the world of school. In that sense, these children are confronted with a rift between the world of school and the world of home.

11 Children of migrants are often faced with a language gap right from when they start preschool (Moro 2004; 2007; 2010; Abdelilah-Bauer 2006). Before starting school, they are in contact with their mother tongue, a language that is primarily based initially on affective and then cognitive functions. It is through the mother tongue that the child discovers the world. But starting school and using a new language requires a mobilization of other, previously little used functions that lack this affective dimension. The second language thus serves an instrumental function, enabling social adaptation, while the first language retains the symbolic dimension. Moreover, the same authors have pointed out that mastery of a second language depends on the level of mastery of the first language. The child must be sufficiently immersed in her first language, the language in which she has discovered the world and learned the necessary foundations to interact with her environment and structure her thinking, in order to learn a second language, a process that is based on the knowledge acquired in the first language (Hagège 1996; Rezzoug et al. 2008). Second-language learning is thus cotemporaneous with first-language reinforcement (Lüdi 2007). There is, therefore, a relationship of interdependence between the mother tongue and the language of the host country/school. But mother tongues and children’s linguistic skills outside the language of schooling have little place in schools. Some researchers (Berthelier 2006; Chomentowski 2009) have emphasized that learning a second language without an intermediary or support may lead to distortions or errors in the language that can affect the child’s school career and learning.

12 Teachers must, therefore, take cultural differences into account in order to achieve real equality of opportunity (Moro 2012).

The evaluation of early language competence in plurilingual children

13 It seems necessary to be able to recognize and grant status to all the linguistic competences of plurilingual children. This recognition also entails the possibility of evaluating all of the language competences of these children, with the aim of refining evaluations and improving the teaching they receive. Currently, there is no tool capable of evaluating the language of plurilingual children of migrants. For that reason, the multidisciplinary team (psychologists, speech therapists, linguists, transcultural experts) at the child and adolescent psychopathology department at the Hôpital Avicenne has built a tool that can evaluate the language of children of migrants who speak a language other than French at home: the Avicenne ELAL (Evaluation Langagière des enfants Allophones [Language Evaluation of Allophone Children]). This tool is designed to enable the evaluation of the language competences of plurilingual children. It should be adaptable to different cultural contexts, and thus be sufficiently universal to be usable in different languages with the aid of an interpreter. Because the Avicenne ELAL is based on the concept of linguistic universals, its structure should be valid for all languages. As in any language evaluation, the tool consists of two essential parts: comprehension and production. The tool evaluates both of these dimensions in the mother tongue.

Clinical research into bilingualism using the Avicenne ELAL

14 The tool was created and tested as part of a large clinical research project: “Validation de l’ELAL d’Avicenne : outil d’évaluation langagière des enfants allophones et étude des facteurs familiaux et transculturels en jeu dans l’acquisition du bilinguisme précoce chez les enfants nés en France de parents migrants” (Validation of the Avicenne ELAL: Language Evaluation Tool for Allophone Children and Study of the Family and Transcultural Factors at Play in the Acquisition of Early Bilingualism in Children Born in France to Migrant Parents), supervised by Prof. Marie Rose Moro and coordinated by Dalila Rezzoug.

15 When testing the tool, we looked at children from the general population selected from school environments (N = 150): children in preschool or kindergarten, aged four to six, born in France to parents who speak the same mother tongue. Three languages were selected for use in testing: Arabic, Soninke, and Tamil. These languages were selected because of their prevalence in the catchment area around the Hôpital Avicenne. Besides this prevalence, these languages are transmitted in specific historical contexts (war, colonization, multilingualism, religion), and their transmission is influenced by the resulting migrant trajectories. As part of the study, children underwent a double language evaluation: in their mother tongue and in French. After a language evaluation of the mother tongue using the Avicenne ELAL, a language evaluation in French was carried out using the N-EEL (Nouvelles Épreuves pour l’Examen du Langage [New Tests for Language Evaluation]; Chevrie-Muller and Plazza 2001). This double evaluation makes it possible to record children’s language competences and identify their type of bilingualism. At a later date, a semi-structured interview was conducted with the child’s parent(s) in order to better understand the child’s language trajectory in terms of intrafamily language practices, investment in languages, and the family’s migratory history.

Transmission of the Soninke language in migratory situations

16 Soninke is the language spoken by a West African ethnic group of the same name (mainly resident in Mali, but also in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania). Like most African languages, Soninke is mostly a spoken language. It was only in the 1970s that it began to be written down. This new mode of transmission developed particularly among Soninke students in Egypt and migrant workers in France. Although the Soninke language has been written for over forty years, the transition to written language remains difficult. Very few people manage to master reading and writing in Soninke.

17 There is a large Soninke diaspora throughout the world, and particularly in France. They make up 70% of migrant workers from West Africa. Although they are a minority in their countries of origin, Soninke migrants group together around their language, which becomes a marker of identity. The promotion and development of this linguistic identity in the migratory context prompted us to investigate the factors at play in the transmission of the mother tongue and the acquisition of Soninke-French bilingualism among the children of Soninke migrants in France (Camara 2014).

18 Of the cohort of Soninke-French bilingual children (N = 50) selected for our study, only 8% displayed harmonious bilingualism. We found that they were more proficient in French than in Soninke (the results of the N-EEL were better than the results of the Avicenne ELAL). Nevertheless, during the Soninke evaluations their comprehension was good: they managed to respond to instructions even if they did not do so in the language requested. These results may be partly explained by the fact that several of the items in the test were associated/related to the school environment, such as colors and counting. The children’s results must be viewed in relation to their family’s language practices, the role of and investment in languages, and their migratory and family history. Within the specificity and singularity of each family history, several factors influence parents’ choice to transmit their mother tongue or not, on one side, and the child’s ability to receive it, on the other. As Rezzoug and Moro point out, “it is the meeting of the parents’ childhood, family, and collective experiences, before, during, and after migration, that constitutes the first ingredient of this transmission” (2011, 156).

19 Our study of Soninke parents (Camara 2014) revealed that they consider their children to be bilingual, though the results of the language evaluations showed that very few of them can actually be considered perfectly bilingual. Why is this the case? It is true that in Soninke culture not much is demanded linguistically of children at this age (four to six) because they are expected to be in a phase of listening and obedience. It is therefore assumed that communication is possible when the child can understand the parent, even if she responds in French; the parent, who has been understood and can communicate with her child, thus sees her as bilingual. Moreover, the Soninke language—a spoken language—places considerable emphasis on understanding the language and what people say before being able to speak and produce it. Consequently, children’s Avicenne ELAL results are encouraging in terms of their language abilities: they reflect the establishment of the Soninke language, which is still in the initial stage of comprehension, in order to then be able to acquire the ability to speak it.

20 All the parents we met believed that they had transmitted their mother tongue to their child. Nevertheless, the results of the Soninke language evaluations are unable to confirm their belief. Thus, when parents tell us that they have transmitted their language, they are rather expressing their desire to do so. It is also clear that transmission of the Soninke language involves more than the transmission of language skills: it is part of building an identity. Language is the vector of transmission for family and migratory history, but also the carrier of filiation and affiliations that enable children to be incorporated into a transgenerational bond. Language transmission is, therefore, a way to affiliate the child with her lineage and country of origin. The function of the language is thus identity-building first and communication second.

Illustration of a language trajectory

21 Mrs. S. is originally from Mauritania, a country she left almost twenty years ago to join her husband in the context of family reunion and fertility problems. She is now the mother of six children, including Kandji, the youngest, a girl of almost five whom we met during our study of bilingualism. She is in her second year of preschool in the northern Parisian suburbs. When we met Mrs. S., although she was able to speak in both languages, she mainly used French, a language she learned in France thanks to literacy courses. Occasionally, a diversion into Soninke seemed unavoidable in order to explain what she meant. Within the family, language practices depend both on the speaker and the person being spoken to. The parents talk to each other in Soninke, while the children speak French to each other. To speak to their children, Mr. S. uses Soninke, while Mrs. S. uses both languages. The parents disagree regarding what language to use with their children. According to Mrs. S., her children are bilingual, even though the younger ones speak less Soninke than the older ones. She says that Kandji mostly speaks in French, except occasionally when she mixes the two languages. Her first words were in Soninke, but her French expanded very quickly due to contact with her siblings. In Kandji’s language evaluations, we encountered a shy little girl. Her French evaluation results were better than her Soninke ones. Her comprehension of her mother tongue is good, and she is capable of producing short sentences, but she struggles when it comes to telling a story. When doing so, Kandji fell back on code-switching, using French words to complete her remarks.

22 Intrafamily relations are maintained regularly, whether with family in France or in their country of origin, generally by telephone because they rarely go back to visit. In terms of her cultural affiliations in her country of origin and in the host country, Mrs. S. seems to have strong attachments in the form of family, language, work, and customs. She feels a sense of belonging equally to her country of origin and her host country. A return to her country of origin seems unlikely for Mrs. S. because she has children in France and they are too young. Mrs. S. tries to transmit her mother tongue to her children in the same way as her parents did to her, in other words by speaking it. She explains that language transmission among the Soninke is not like in France, where it occurs through the written word. For Mrs. S., transmitting her language means transmitting an identity, as well as respect and values. She emphasizes the importance of her children being able to communicate with her mother and the rest of her family who stayed in her country of origin. When we ask her about bilingualism, she says it is an asset for her daughter. Mrs. S. emphasizes the importance of speaking both languages to her children. It would not occur to her to only transmit her mother tongue to her daughter, because she thinks that would create difficulties for her at school.

23 In this meeting with Mrs. S. and her daughter, we can see how complex language transmission is and how strongly it is influenced by family and migratory history. The role of, ideas about, and choice of the different languages, as well as language practices, age, cultural affiliations, migratory history, and position in the sibling order, are all factors at play in the acquisition of bilingualism.


24 In summary, transmitting a mother tongue to a child is not simply a linguistic act but also a process of cultural and identity transmission. Language is the carrier of filiation and affiliations. It is thus essential that children acquire their mother tongue securely to then be able to better receive and invest in the second language and its acquisitions.

25 It is also necessary to fight against prejudices that are still very common: early bilingualism does not impede the child’s language development or acquisition of learning. Children can acquire two languages simultaneously or sequentially with no negative cognitive impact (Moro 2012). Indeed, bilingualism is a cognitive and affective asset and a protective factor for children of migrants and all those who live in multilingual environments. It is, therefore, important to promote and support the transmission of languages in transcultural situations, because linguistic plurality, in any degree, is an opportunity for all children. Giving the French school system the opportunity to open its doors to the diversity and linguistic richness of its students and of society would thus optimize the chances of success and creativity of all children.


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    Translator’s note: Unless otherwise stated, all translations of cited foreign-language material in this article are our own.

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Hawa Camara
Clinical psychologist, AP-HP, Hôpital Cochin, Doctor of psychology at Paris Descartes University
Uploaded on on 25/08/2022
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