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  • Teresa Newmark, MA, CCC-SLP

Answering Questions about Bilingualism and Language Development

Many thanks to our very own bilingual speech-language pathologist, Alina Solomon, for this fantastic post on bilingualism and language development!


As a bilingual speech therapist in the Bay Area, I’m surrounded by many diverse cultures, families, and languages. Many parents are bilingual themselves and speak two languages at home. Others just feel more confident speaking their home language as compared to English. Whatever the reason, raising a bilingual child always brings up many questions.


I was thrilled when Teresa asked me to write a blog post to address bilingual language development so I could help address some of these concerns. Below I’ll help define bilingualism, I’ll discuss the different types of bilingualism, and I’ll talk about the advantages of learning two languages (or more!). I’ll also specifically address bilingualism for children with speech delay and I’ll share the best ways to help a child develop bilingual language skills.


What is bilingualism anyway?


Let’s start by defining what this means. Simply put, bilingualism refers to an individual’s ability to understand and use two languages. However, equal skills in each language are not required to be considered bilingual. In fact, perfect bilingualism with equal proficiency in two languages is rare. This is especially true when considering children’s skills as they are just learning language. “Bilingual” can mean something slightly different from child to child. For example, a toddler may be considered billingual even if her skills in Spanish are much stronger than in English.


And what are the benefits?


Many children across the world grow up learning two languages at the same time. In fact, in many parts of the world, bilingualism is common and even the norm. In Canada, for example, 17.4% of the population is considered bilingual and many European countries have a requirement for children to start learning a second language by age 6.

The benefits of adding a second language are varied too. Here is just a short list:

  • Improved executive function including memory

  • cognitive flexibility

  • improved attention skills

  • improved ability to switch from task to task

Of course, there are also tangible benefits like being able to communicate with family members who speak the home language (e.g. grandparents, family living abroad). Last but not least the ability to understand and enjoy a foreign culture is.



My child has some trouble communicating. Will exposure to two languages confuse her even more?


As a speech-language therapist, I am often called upon when a child’s speech or language skills are delayed. Inevitably I get the question, “Won’t two languages confuse my child even more?”


To answer this question, I look at what the evidence tells me. Research shows that bilingual children may develop fewer words in each language early on. They may also begin speaking a tad later than monolingual children (but still within the normal range). However, eventually bilingual children’s total vocabulary size is typically comparable to that of monolinguals. Children are not confused by two languages at all! Children can usually keep the two languages separate but because early learning is based on a child’s experiences, a child may know certain words in one language and other words in another. I can even share an example from my own life – I remember being in college and wanting to talk about duvets and pillowcases. But, I hadn’t the slightest clue how to say these words in English! I only knew the words in Russian because I learned them from my parents. I hadn’t been exposed to many conversations about bedding outside the home and hence didn’t have this specific vocabulary in English.


In other words, bilingualism does not cause language disorder. Although children may develop the two languages at different speeds and may have different levels of proficiency in each, learning more than one language in and of itself is not a problem. If a child has a delay, learning two languages will not delay her further either.


I’m sold! How can I help my child?


You can do a lot! According to Fred Genesee, a highly respected researcher on this topic, bilingual language acquisition is facilitated best when children have “sustained, rich, and varied” experiences in both languages. Practically, that means it is important for your child to hear two languages as much and as early as possible. Talk with your child throughout the day. Give your child choices so they can practice using their language skills (e.g., do you want crackers or juice?). Sing with your child, read a book with them, talk about the animals at the zoo! The best technique I can share is to encourage you to use both languages in everyday situations as you normally would. That’s right, no special effort is necessary except to intentionally provide exposure to the two languages.


One issue is when parents themselves are not comfortable speaking one of the languages. No pressure – research shows that early communicators learn best when their parents use the language they know best. If Spanish is the language most comfortable for you, go ahead and speak it to your child. If Mandarin feels more comfortable, speak Mandarin confidently. Using a language model that is not correct or using words that are unnatural in a given situation will be less useful in the end.


Practice, practice, practice!


Just like when your child learns one language, it is vital that your child gets as many opportunities to practice both languages as possible. Practice includes hearing and using the language throughout the day in every activity he/she does. Let your child practice when getting ready in the morning, eating breakfast, going to school, playing in the park, eating dinner, and taking a bath at night. Each interaction is a golden learning opportunity!


Happy talking!


-Alina Solomon, MS, CCC-SLP


Sources:

  • http://www.hanen.org/helpful-info/articles/can-children-with-language-impairments-learn-two-l.aspx

  • http://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/BilingualChildren/

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Canada

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_multilingual_countries_and_regionsimmeasurably enhanced by speaking its language.

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