Bilingualism, or multilingualism, is the ability to understand, speak, read and/or write in more than one language. Most Americans understand the social and business advantages of bilingualism well. The intellectual advantages we understand less, although they are quite notable.
Research suggests that students with four or more years of foreign language study score higher on SAT exams that those who lack a bilingual education. Bilingualism is associated with better perception and classification skills, cognitive ability and mental flexibility. Bilingualism is also associated with facilitating a person’s native language vocabulary and grammar. There is even evidence that Alzheimer’s and dementia are delayed in people who are bilingual relative to those who are monolingual.
Parents often express to me fears of exposing their children to a second language. However, children do not become confused by learning a second language. Multilingualism does not cause a delay or disorder. Our brains are amazing mechanisms built for communication. So why do Americans tend to question introducing foreign languages to their children? Here is my theory.
Many Americans’ experiences with bilingualism concerns immigrants learning English as a second language. They may mistake an accent for insufficient communication skills. Additionally, children learning English as a second language are sometimes misidentified as having learning problems because providers lack the resources to properly assess, understand and educate such kids.
There are also normal developmental second language errors that can be mistaken as language problems. When a second language is introduced, children may go through a silent period, use telegraphic output, mix their languages within an utterance, experience interference by using the grammar of one language with the vocabulary of another or experience the loss of native language skills if they are not maintained. As skills develop, however, these developmental occurrences diminish.
A myth exists that children learning two languages have slower language development than monolingual children. This comes from failing to look at a bilingual child as a whole speaker. If we expect a child to have a 100-word vocabulary for his age, he might know 75 words in Spanish and 25 in English. Looking at only one language out of context, the child might seem to be delayed. But, such a child is on par developmentally. Considering his two languages together, he falls within the expected range.
If a delay or disorder is suspected, a child should be assessed by a speech-language pathologist (SLP) with bilingual training. An SLP is an expert in the cognitive and motor aspects of communication development and functioning. If there is a delay or disorder, it is something else at play, not the bilingualism.
Pointers for Bilingual Language Development
Any time is a fine time to introduce kids to a second language. That said, the earlier that children start learning a second language, the better. This is especially true for pronunciation. We are born with the ability to perceive sound contrasts in all languages. This ability is lost in infancy if not reinforced. The ability to perceive sound influences sound production. If we can’t perceive a sound well, we can’t produce it well.
Language is a tool to communicate wants and needs. Communication skills grow when we have a variety of meaningful, enjoyable interactions. Providing diverse and frequent opportunities to use a second language is crucial for development. Children should have the chance to speak and write in their second language and to use it in a range of settings, such as at home, at school and in the community.
A family may select various models for fostering bilingualism. Different models can be used concurrently. I suggest using whatever model fosters effective and enjoyable communication, along with good language modeling, such as by using examples. In the One Parent One Language model, parents select the language they will use with their children— perhaps French for mom and Hebrew for dad. This may not always be practical. In the Situational model, a child might use language A at home and language B at school. Alternatively, a parent may select to use language A for one time of the day, maybe bath time, and language B for another, possibly mealtime. Children can also learn a second language outside the home in immersion school programs, where all or part of the day is taught in the target language, or exploratory programs, where the second language is taught as an elective class that meets periodically.
Any degree of well-presented second language exposure is beneficial. Read books and sing songs about the second language, take trips, hire a babysitter who speaks the other language and get your child involved in additional experiences related to the second language. Be consistent. Provide good models and varied fun experiences. Don’t pressure children to talk. Let them respond in whatever language they feel comfortable, regardless of the language you use. You’ll be setting them up with a great advantage for success in all areas of life.