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The Impact of Bilingualism on Overall Language Development and Academic Success


Parents frequently have questions about how second language learning affects reading ability, social skills, and scholastic achievement. Research suggests that children who learn a second language are more creative and better at solving complex problems than those who do not. Studies have shown that bilinguals outperform similar monolingual peers on both verbal and nonverbal tests of intelligence and tend to achieve higher scores on standardized tests. Additionally, individuals who speak more than one language have the ability to communicate with more people, read more literature, and benefit more fully from travel abroad. Knowing a second language also gives people a competitive advantage in the workforce.

Critical Period to Learn New Language

Many linguists believe there is a 'critical period' (lasting roughly from birth until puberty) during which a child can easily acquire any language that he or she is regularly exposed to. Under this view, the structure of the brain changes at puberty, and after that it becomes harder to learn a new language. This means that it is much easier to learn a second language during childhood than as an adult. Apart from the above, children do tend to develop more native-like pronunciation when bilingualism begins before adolescence.

Types of Childhood Bilingualism

Two types of childhood bilingualism have been defined. The first is simultaneous learning of two languages. It normally happens when the language used at home is different from language used in the community or school. The parents, caregivers or other family members might not speak the language of the school or the community, or the parents could speak two or more languages but have made a decision about which language they speak with the child.

The second type of childhood bilingualism is called sequential or successive bilingualism. This happens when a child has one established language before learning a second language, whether in preschool or later (the age of three usually separates simultaneous and sequential language learning). Some children and adults, of course, usually learn a second language formally through school or language classes.

You Need a 'Language Plan'

Bilingualism really isn't something that simply happens. Raising children to be successful in more than one language requires some careful planning and learning about bilingual language development. Success appears to depend on whether a "language plan" has been worked out in advance. Families who take the time to consider how their children will develop two languages, and who make the necessary commitments to bilingual language development, tend to be more successful in raising bilingual children.

Before you start the bilingual program, it's a good idea to clarify your own definition of bilingualism. Language proficiency can be evaluated in terms of listening, speaking, reading and writing. A person may speak only one language but have listening comprehension in two languages. Another may listen and speak in two languages but reading and writing ability in only one.

When kids are learning two languages at the same time parents need to work out language strategies that emphasize boundaries between the languages. For example:

  • One parent, one language. Each parent consistently speaks one language while the other parent speaks another language (usually each on speaking his or her native language to the child and possibly the common language to each other).

  • Both parents speak one language in the home and a second language is used at school.

  • One language is used in the home and at school and the second language is used in the community.

  • Both parents speak both languages to the child but separate the languages according to speaking situations or alternate days.

Recommendations for parents

Here are a few basic points that are important in raising children with more than one language.

  • Provide the right environment. Do what comes naturally to you and your family in terms of which language(s) you use when, but make sure your children hear both (or all three or four) languages frequently and in a variety of circumstances. Create opportunities for your children to use all of the languages they hear. Be good listeners and good language models by introducing rich vocabulary and varied conversations. Providing books, music, and even videos in both language is also important.

  • Talk to all your children in the same way, not for instance, using one language with the elder and another language with the younger. Language is tied to emotions, and if you address your children in different languages, some of your children may feel excluded, which in turn might adversely affect their behavior.

  • Avoid abrupt changes in how you talk to your children, especially when they are under six. Don't suddenly decide to speak French to them if you have only been using English. In this respect, beware of "experts" (e.g., doctors, teachers) who tell you to stop speaking a particular language to your child.

  • Children should not be forced into bilingualism if it really does make them unhappy. If you feel strongly about your children using one particular language with you, encourage them to use it in all of their communication with you. Try to discourage their use of another language with you by asking them to repeat what they said in the preferred language or by gently offering them the appropriate words in the language you want them to use.

  • Be consistent with the pattern you choose, stick to it. Although children can learn two languages in what seems like chaos, a reasonable amount of consistency will make their job, and yours, simpler. Once children learn the pattern they are often disturbed when a parent breaks it.

  • The more you can make bilingualism seem like a natural and unremarkable part of family life, the more likely it is that the children will grow up to enjoy being bilingual, and the more likely it is that you will succeed in keeping both languages active in your home. Do not make language an issue, and do not rebuke or punish children for using or not using a particular language.

  • Do not mix the languages. If you mix languages in the same conversation, young kids experience difficulty separating vocabulary and grammar into the appropriate language. The child may learn the "mixed" language as one hybrid language.

  • Be aware of individual difference among children. Each child learns language at his or her own speed. This is related to a variety of factors, such as length of time the family remains in the community that used the second language, relationships with the family member who speaks the second language, and attitudes toward each language expressed by the parents, school, community and especially the child. Both languages must be given importance and a sense of worth in all aspects of the child's life.

There are speech therapists and medical doctors who claim that using two languages at young age causes language delay and language disorder. The common reason for this claim is twofold. First, they claim that hearing two or more languages will confuse the child and lead to grave problems in acquiring language. Second, it is claimed that the acquisition of the main language of the environment will stand a better chance without competition from the other language.

However, there is no scientific evidence to date that using two or more languages leads to delays or disorders in language acquisition. Many children throughout the world grow up with two or more languages from infancy without showing any signs of language delays or disorders. These children provide visible proof that there is no causal relationship between a bilingual environment and language learning problems. In addition, there is no scientific evidence that giving up one language automatically has a beneficial effect on the other.

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