Many parents whose native language is not English or who speak multiple languages at home report receiving conflicting and sometimes misleading information about bilingualism and best practices for supporting language. In the United States we are becoming an increasingly multilingual country, so it is essential that we are informed about how to support children from bilingual homes as well as children whose home language is not the majority one (English).
Research about bilingual language development in children and the acquisition of more than one language has helped us to understand how multiple languages are learned. This can inform us in the best practices when supporting language development and raising a bilingual child. Further, studies have also revealed that there are huge benefits to being bilingual. A few of these benefits include superior cognitive-linguistic abilities and literacy skills.
The following are some answers to commonly asked questions about raising a child in a bilingual home, or in a home where the native language is not English.
Will speaking multiple languages confuse my child?
No, it will not. Children are not confused by multiple languages. Studies in infants show that people process and discriminate between multiple languages from a very young age. Bilingual children are able to respond to partners in different languages appropriately and without difficulty.
If I want my child to speak the majority language, should I stop speaking my home language?
No. There is no evidence that frequent use of another language in the home is essential for a child to learn a second language. Research actually shows that children who have a strong foundation in their first language (L1) more easily learn a second language (L2) and will have better language skills overall.
Will speaking to my child in my native language hold them back from learning English or confuse them as they enter preschool and kindergarten?
No, it will not. There are multilingual children and people all over the world who successfully learn multiple languages without confusion. It is true that mastery of English is important for success in school. However, research shows being fluent in more than one language can actually contribute to academic success and that people who speak more than one language show superior cognitive-linguistic skills, reading, and learning abilities. Further, strong L1 skills will transfer to L2.
Will bilingualism cause a language delay in my child?
No, it will not cause a language delay. Bilingual speakers have something called distributed vocabulary. This means that a bilingual child’s total vocabulary (across both languages) will be at least the same size as same-age peers. If vocabulary is measured in only one language, it may appear smaller than other same-age children, however is not an accurate measure of your bilingual child’s abilities. Research comparing bilingual and monolingual children has shown mixed results. Some studies comparing children learning two languages with monolingual peers show minor differences in meeting milestones (slightly later on), while other studies show no differences in language development between the two groups. Overall, research informs us that bilingual children still meet milestones within the normal age range, even if it is on the later side of average. So while they might meet language milestones slightly later than monolingual children, developing multiple languages will not cause delays. Further, they develop grammar along the same patterns as children learning one language
Should we adopt the “one parent/one language” approach when exposing our child to two languages?
You can, but you don’t have to. In the one parent/one language approach, each parent speaks a different language to the child. This is one option for raising a bilingual child, but not the only way.
Is there is one “right” way to raise a bilingual child?
No, there is not. Bilingual homes vary greatly and there are many ways to raise a bilingual child. Some of these include: one parent/one language, one place/one language, one activity/one language. Speak to your child in a way that is comfortable and natural for you. The most important thing you can do for your child is give them excellent language models, with good quantity and quality of language, no matter the language.
When my child mixes languages, does it mean that she is confused or delayed? Does it mean she is having trouble becoming bilingual?
No, mixing languages does not suggest confusion or language difficulty. When bilingual speakers do this it is called code switching. This is a natural part of bilingualism and is something that proficient adult bilinguals do as well. It is not a sign of delay; in fact, it is a sign of bilingual proficiency. Code switching requires advanced cognitive skills in which the speaker can move between and rapidly retrieve words in different languages. Bilingual speakers do this for a variety of reasons: to match the language of a new conversational partner, to emphasize something, to express emotion, or to highlight what someone else has said in the other language. Code switching also helps with effective communication and word use, like allowing a speaker to express himself when he knows a word in one language but not the other. Imagine having two languages to choose from when you can’t remember that word you are trying to say!
Is a person actually bilingual if she isn’t equally proficient in both languages?
Yes. It is rare for a person to be equally proficient in two or more languages. Most bilinguals have a dominant language, or a language of greater proficiency. Having a dominant language is not equivalent to speaking only one language. Dominant language is often influenced by the majority language of the society in which the individual lives and the age of acquisition of a second language. A person’s dominant language can also change with age, circumstance, education, social network, employment, and other factors.
Does my child have to learn a second language as a young child in order to become bilingual?
Not necessarily. According to the Critical Period theory there is a window of time in early childhood during which language is most easily learned. Studies have shown that young children achieve better native-like pronunciation than older children or adult second language learners and seem to achieve better long-term grammatical skills than older learners. This informs us that it is easier to learn two languages earlier in life. However, studies show that middle/elementary school-age children may have some advantages because they have more advanced cognitive skills, more learning experience, and developed literacy skills. Studies have also found that children who learn a second language later seem to be advantaged when initially learning vocabulary and grammar.
My native language is not English, but I want my child to learn English. What language do I use with my baby?
Parents do not benefit their children by avoiding use of their native language and speaking only English. In fact, if parents have significantly more proficiency in their native language, it is best to use that in order to provide a language-enriching environment with high quality and quantity of language. Providing poor language models will only hinder language development. Remember the better L1, the better your baby’s language success later on, including transfer of skills to L2 (in this case learning English). Other harmful impacts of “English only” include loss of cultural identity, reduced transmission of belief systems within the family, strained interactions and reduced bonding between child and caregiver, and difficulty connecting with family members who do not speak English. Plus, it does not give your baby the opportunity to take advantage of all of the benefits of being bilingual.
Bilingual families and families who primarily speak a native language other than English often express concerns regarding the best ways to facilitate language development, bilingual language skills, and English language learning for their children. I hope this has helped to answer some of the tough questions about bilingualism and language development in children.
There are many, many benefits to speaking multiple languages! So remember:
- Go ahead and speak more than one language from birth!
- Do what feels natural for you and your baby.
- It is not necessary for two languages to be kept separate to avoid confusion.
- Bilingual language development will not negatively impact communication or cause delays.
- Because excellent quantity and quality of language are most important for your child, use your best language with them.
- Language skills transfer between multiple languages.
- Mixing languages, called code-switching, is a cognitive skill and natural part of being bilingual. It does not mean the child is confused.
- A bilingual child who is demonstrating significant delays in language milestones could have a language disorder and should be seen by a speech-language pathologist.
This blog post is a portion of a presentation created by Marahu Falcon George, MA, CCC-SLP, as part of a collaboration between the Pediatric Rehab Team at Emerson’s Center for Rehabilitative and Sports Therapies and First Connections in order to provide educational services and support to new parents of infants and families in surrounding communities.
Marahu Falcon George, MA, CCC-SLP is a Massachusetts licensed speech-language pathologist in the pediatric department at Emerson Hospital’s Center for Rehabilitative and Sports Therapies and is a member of the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA). Her clinical experience includes treatment and assessment of infants and children with a variety of diagnoses in the school, pediatric outpatient, early intervention, and private practice settings. She is trained in Beckman Oral Motor method, DIR Floortime, Neuro Developmental Therapy, and LAMP. Marahu is an English and Spanish speaker dedicated to delivering optimal services to culturally and linguistically diverse populations. She is currently a member of Emerson’s Pediatric Clinical Feeding Team and of ASHA’s Special Interest Group 13 in swallowing and swallowing disorders and dysphagia. Clinical interests include diagnosis and treatment of pediatric feeding and swallowing disorders, neuromotor disorders, motor speech disorders including Childhood Apraxia of Speech, language development in infants and children, development of communication skills in play-based therapy, and bilingual language.
Have questions for Marahu or want to connect with a speech-language pathologist or other specialist from the pediatric team at Emerson’s Center for Rehabilitative and Sports Therapies? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, call 978-287-8200, or visit www.emersonhospital.org/rehab.