The Myths of Bilinguism
When it comes to raising bilingual children, myths and misunderstandings are common, but facts are hard to come by.
Bilingualism refers to the ability to use two languages in everyday life. Despite the prevalence of bilingualism, this is still a young research field due to vast differences across families, communities, and cultures. But there are good research studies in areas of developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, education, linguistics, and communication sciences and disorders that can help us understand things further.
I am trilingual, brought up with Spanish speaking parents in a French speaking country and attending an English speaking school since the age of 5. My parents do not speak English but I am fully fluent in all 3 languages and I am currently raising my little girl bilingual (English/Spanish). One day I may support her in learning French too but my focus is for her to stay connected to our families, cultures and histories.
Many parents have shared questions with me about how to best support their child’s language acquisition and although I am not a language expert I thought I would share here 5 common questions to separate Myth from Scientific Findings.
Does speaking two different languages confuse children?
Bilingual adults can speak whatever language they choose in the moment, but what about children who are beginning to learn language? Will this lead them to get confused?
The research is clear: bilingual infants readily distinguish their two languages and show no evidence of confusion. Infants are sensitive to a language’s rhythm. Recent research has shown that 4-month-old can discriminate silent talking faces speaking different languages. However, by 8 months of age, only bilingual infants are still sensitive to the distinction, while monolinguals stop paying attention to subtle variations in facial movements
One misunderstood behaviour, which is often taken as evidence for confusion, is when bilingual children mix words from two languages in the same sentence. This is known as CODE MIXING. Code mixing is a normal part of bilingual development, and often it happens frequently in the child’s language community. So children are just doing what they hear adults around them do!
A second reason is that, just like children who are monolingual, bilingual children are sometimes limited in their vocabulary. Similarly to how many little ones might initially use the word “dog” to refer to any four-legged animal, bilingual children use their limited vocabularies resourcefully. If a child does not know or cannot quickly retrieve the appropriate word in one language, they might borrow the word from the other language. (NOTE: Adult bilinguals also do this even if they are fluent in both! Some words just sound better or have a better fit in one language than in the other).
Rather than being a sign of confusion, Code Mixing is a sign of bilingual children’s ingenuity. Furthermore, evidence shows bilingual children do not use their two languages haphazardly and at 2 years of age children show some ability to modulate their language according to the language used by their conversational partner.
Are bilingual children more likely to have language difficulties, delays, or disorders?
There is common misconception that bilingual children are slower at acquiring language and this is due to false evidence of delays. Evidence is clear that bilingual children are not more likely than monolingual children to have difficulties with language even if it may appear so at first.
Science has revealed an important property of early bilingual children’s language knowledge: Although bilingual children may know fewer words in each of their languages than similar aged peers who only speak one language, this apparent difference disappears when you calculate bilingual children’s “conceptual vocabulary” across both languages.
In other words – if you add known words in each language without double counting (e.g. dog and perro = 1 word), then bilingual children know the same amount of words as monolingual children.
As an example, if a Spanish/English bilingual toddler knows 50 Spanish words and 50 English words, she will probably not appear to be as good at communicating when compared to her monolingual cousin who knows 90 English words.
There is also evidence that bilingual children match monolinguals in conversational abilities; for example, when somebody uses a confusing or mispronounced word, or says something ambiguous, bilingual children can repair the conversation with the same skill as monolinguals.
Furthermore the evidence shows that bilingual children with specific language impairments, Down syndrome, and autism spectrum disorders are not more likely to experience additional delays or challenges compared to monolingual children with these impairments.
One issue is that few clinicians receive quality training about the learning needs of bilingual children, which in some cases leads to a misdiagnosis of bilingual children as having delayed or disordered language. A bilingual clinician, or an individual who has training in bilingualism, will take care in assessing language skills in both languages, in order to measure the child’s entire language profile. One major difficulty is that most clinicians are not bilingual and even if they are, may not be proficient in the languages you and your child speak.
In order to accurately diagnose a language delay they have to (1) accurately assess a bilingual child’s language abilities in each of her languages, (2) integrate the child’s problematic and unproblematic abilities in terms of sounds, words, grammar, and conversation in each language into a coherent whole, (3) evaluate whether the child is delayed and/or disordered in one or both languages, (4) weigh the child’s linguistic/cognitive capacities in comparison to typically and atypically developing monolingual children and, when possible, bilingual children of the same age, and (5) develop an effective intervention that targets areas of linguistic/cognitive competence in one and/or both languages.
This is therefore a complex and skilled task that few clinicians are able to perform successfully. Fortunately, researchers and clinicians are now developing bilingual-specific measures that paint a more accurate picture of bilinguals’ global language competence and these may help professionals and clinicians more accurately assess and interven where language delay or difficulties are present.
Is earlier better?
Many people are familiar with the concept of a “critical period” for language acquisition but there is disagreement about what this is and when it takes place. One thing that is robust in research on bilingualism and second language learning is that earlier is better.
Young children experience a very rich language environment during the first years of life. They hear language in attention-grabbing, digestible bundles. This high-quality and high-quantity experience with language often results in successful language learning. It gives children rich, diverse, and engaging opportunities to learn about the sounds, syllables, words, phrases, and sentences that comprise their native language.
But beyond the first years of life, second language learning often happens very differently. Older children and adults do not usually have the same amount of time to devote to language learning, and they do not usually experience the advantage of fun, constant, one-on-one interaction with native speakers. Instead language is learnt in a classroom with only a small fraction of the language practice that infants and toddlers get.
Bilinguals who learn two languages from birth are referred to as simultaneous bilinguals, and those who learn a first language followed by a second language—whether as toddlers or as adults—are referred to as sequential bilinguals.
Simultaneous bilinguals tend to have better accents, more diversified vocabulary, higher grammatical proficiency, and greater skill in real-time language processing.
So the take-home message is that more is better, and earlier is better. Language learning becomes more challenging with time but for those who are motivated it is never too late to learn a new language!
Does Bilinguism Make Children Smarter?
There has been a flurry of media talking about the potential benefits of learning multiple languages early on, but is there any truth in it?
One of the most important benefits that sometimes goes unnoticed is that bilingual children will know multiple languages, which is important for travel, employment, speaking with members of one’s extended family, connecting to family culture and history, and making friends from different backgrounds.
Several studies have suggested that bilingual children show advantages when it comes to social understanding. In some ways, this is not surprising, as bilinguals must navigate a complex social world where different people have different language knowledge. For example, bilingual children have been shown to have better skills than monolinguals in understanding others’ perspectives, thoughts, desires, and intentions. There is also some evidence that young bilingual children are more sensitivite to certain features of communication such as tone of voice.
Bilingual children also show some cognitive strengths. In particular, they appear to perform a little bit better on tasks that involve switching between activities and inhibiting previously learned responses (ie. Executive function tasks). Although this has mostly been found in bilingual adults and children, new evidence suggests that bilingual infants and toddlers also show strengths in areas of memory.
What leads to these advantages is less well known but there has been some research to suggest that bilingual adults who regularly switch back and forth between their languages, and inhibit one language while they selectively speak another are training their brain in areas of executive function. But speaking two languages is not the only experience that can lead to this kind of cognitive strength. Learning a musical instrument early has also been shown to create similar strengths. So it is likely that having rich early experiences promotes cognitive development and these findings do not imply that bilingualism is an essential ingredient for successful development.
What is the best strategy for raising bilingual children?
One popular strategy is “one-person-one-language”. Research has shown that a ‘one-person-one-language approach’ CAN lead to successful acquisition of the two languages but not necessarily and not in isolation of other important factors.
Infants learn language through listening to and interacting with different speakers. They need to have a lot of exposure to the sounds, words, and grammar of the languages that they will one day speak. Quality and quantity matter.
High quality language exposure involves social interaction (i.e. infants do not learn language from television). Opportunities to interact with multiple people speaking the language has been linked to vocabulary learning in bilingual toddlers.
Quantity can be measured by the number of words that children hear per day in each language. Quantity of early exposure has a profound effect on children’s ongoing language development: hearing more words gives children a greater opportunity to learn a language, which leads to later advantages in school performance. For bilingual children, it is important to consider the quantity of their exposure to each language.
However, as children become older, they become more aware of the language spoken in the community where they live (i.e. the majority language). The minority language is more at risk to be lost as children grow older without continuous high quality and quantity exposure That is why exposing a child to a second language only when grandparents visit or through a part-time nanny a few days a week, is unlikely to support the acquisition of another language.
So what language strategies should you use? From what I have learnt, do whatever strategy works to promote high-quality and high-quantity exposure to each of your child’s languages. This may include structured approaches such as one-person-one-language, or one language at home, one language outside. Some parents will only speak one language with their child, even if they are able to speak the other to ensure exposure to a particular language. Other families find that flexible use of the two languages, without fixed rules, leads to balanced exposure and positive interactions.
Each family is unique and you may find it useful to regularly make an objective appraisal of what your child is actually hearing on a daily basis and consider adjusting language use when necessary.
1) Bilingualism is only one way to promote successful early development
2) Second language learning is possible at any age.
3) Language is a window to the world!
If you are interested in this topic and wish to read more please see below for research papers in this area:
van den Noort, M., Struys, E., & Bosch, P. (2019). Individual Variation and the Bilingual Advantage-Factors that Modulate the Effect of Bilingualism on Cognitive Control and Cognitive Reserve. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 9(12), 120