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
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
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'
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
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.