Is Bilingualism Helpful or Detrimental?
Bilingualism and multilingualism are increasingly worldwide trends. Recent studies have shown that in the United States, over 21-percent of school age children (ages 5-17) speak a language other than American English at home. This number may continue to rise in the coming decade.
Similarly, nearly 12-percent of the Canadian population speak a language other than the official languages of English and French. In Toronto alone, 31-percent of the population speaks another type of language at home.
Since English is now a global language, there are special implications on how it relates to bilingualism. Currently, there are more second-language English speakers than native English speakers. Moreover, there are now as many bilingual children (ages 5-17) as there are monolingual children worldwide.
With the rise of bilingualism, it is understandable that many parents and caregivers have questions about whether bilingualism has a detrimental effect on communication. For example, many parents ask, “Does growing up bilingual cause speech delay?” The short answer is no, bilingualism does not cause speech delay at all. However, having a misinformed approach to bilingualism may cause a child to struggle in certain areas of language acquisition. It is time to separate the facts from the myths about bilingualism.
Bilingualism: Facts vs. Fiction
Myth 1: Bilingualism Can Cause Speech Delay
Answer: FALSE. Although bilingual children may say their first word somewhat later than monolingual children may, bilingual children still start speaking within the expected age range (between 8 months and 15 months). From here, bilingual children acquire language at the same pace as other children. For example, while a bilingual child’s vocabulary in each language may be smaller, the TOTAL active vocabulary from both languages will add up to the same-size active vocabulary as a monolingual child. Bilingual children also begin to compose sentences in the same period as monolingual children. If a bilingual child has a speech delay, it is usually related to an actual developmental or language disorder (just like with a monolingual child).
Myth 2: Mixing Languages While Speaking is a Sign of Confusion from Bilingualism
Answer: FALSE. Mixing languages is actually a sign of proficiency in both languages. Also known as “code-switching,” it is a natural form of language processing and communication. Code switching can occur when children speak a different dialect of the same language as well as when children speak two different languages all together.
Myth 3: You Cannot Be Truly Bilingual Unless You Speak Both Languages with Equal Proficiency
Answer: FALSE. Most bilinguals have a dominant language and a secondary language. Typically, children become immersed in a dominant language due to the environment in which they live. In addition, a dominant language can gradually change with age and social environment.
Myth 4: To Become Truly Bilingual, a Person Must Learn the Second Language during Childhood
Answer: FALSE. Individuals learn the basics of human communication during childhood. This includes verbal and non-verbal communication, and this learning can take place in any language. After that, anyone can become bilingual through academic learning. Older children may be at an advantage in learning a second language due to more advanced cognitive abilities. Adults may also be at an advantage in remembering vocabulary and grammar.
Myth 5: To Help Children Learn English Faster, Parents Should Stop Speaking Their Native Language at Home
Answer: FALSE. Parents who try to avoid speaking to their children can make it harder for a child to learn any language well. When parents attempt to limit their own speech, it can reduce the quality and quantity of language exposure that the child receives overall. Parents should interact with their children frequently and in the language in which they feel most comfortable. In addition to helping children learn the mechanics of human communication, this interaction creates a supportive and nurturing environment for all learning. From there, children can continue to become proficient in both languages.
How Exactly Children Become Bilingual?
Children can become bilingual in two ways:
- Simultaneous Acquisition. This means that children receive exposure to two languages from birth. Research shows that the brain typically processes the two languages as distinct from a very early age. This is why children can code-switch by school age (such as speaking English at school and then switching to a parent’s native language at home).
- Sequential Acquisition. This occurs when children pick up a language after they have already established their first language (typically after age 3). Sequential acquisition can occur when children speak one language at home and then begin to learn a completely different language at school. It can also occur after a family immigrates. Parents should not feel alarmed if the child goes through a nonverbal period for a few weeks as he or she observes and adapts to the new language. After this non-verbal period, children may then say a few imitative sentences to test the dialect before composing phrases and sentences of their own.
What are the Benefits of Being Bilingual?
Although many parents fear that speaking two languages at home may put a child at a disadvantage, there are several benefits to being bilingual. Studies have shown that bilingualism can have cognitive and social advantages. Children who are bilingual may find it easier to focus and eliminate distractions during studies. Bilingual children can find creative approaches to problem solving and have access to a broad range of perspectives and cultures. Speaking more than one language can eventually increase access to resources and job opportunities. In later life, bilingualism can even lower the impact of aging on the brain and delay the onset of dementia among the elderly.
Contact The Warren Center if you have further questions about bilingualism or suspect that your child has not met language developmental milestones for his or her age.