It wasn’t too long ago when parents believe that exposing their children to two languages while growing up brought more harm than good. They were concerned that their children being bilingual might mix up the languages in their heads, thus the children will turn out to be late talkers. They also fear that if their children become bilingual, this might hinder their academic and intellectual development, and the children might grow up with poor communication skills.
Parents are worried that their kids might experience interference in processing language. This is true, bilinguals’ brains tend to work two language systems even if they are using only one language, and one system obstruct the other. But, as you will see, this interference may actually have benefits. The fear that bilingual kids take longer to develop language skills is unwarranted, as a 1962 study suggests that the ability to speak two languages does not stunt overall development.
Also, many other scientific studies should ease parents’ concern that their kids knowing two languages may have bad effects. On the contrary, studies suggest that bilingualism actually have cognitive and practical benefits and positive effects on kids:
- The interference in processing language that bilingual kids experience make them able to switch from one language to another. Whenever bilinguals use language, their brains are busy choosing the right word while blocking the same term from another language. This forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the brain a good workout. It is like exercising the brain.
- A number of studies suggest that being bilingual improves the brain’s executive function, according to Ellen Bialystok, psychologist and author of “The Bilingual Advantage”. The executive control is a command system in the brain that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing a variety of mentally demanding tasks. Bilinguals use this executive function more probably because they are routinely practicing switching between two languages, and this makes it more efficient. This benefit can be seen in babies as early as 11 months old.
- The physical brains of bilinguals adapt to the demand of juggling between two languages by restructuring itself. The brains of older lifelong bilinguals, young early bilinguals and adult early bilinguals are found to have thickness of the myelin – known as “myelination” – compared to monolinguals. This thickness makes the transfer of information faster and with fewer losses (Source)
- Bilingual kids exercise cognitive flexibility; that is, they are better at focusing attention on relevant information and ignoring unnecessary distractions, making the process of learning new rules much faster.
- Because their brains are active and flexible, bilinguals understand math concepts and solve word problems more easily. (Source)
- Bilinguals have heightened ability to monitor the environment. Bilinguals are constantly looking out for the need to switch languages, for example, talking to their fathers in one language and mothers in another. Being bilingual, according to Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain “… requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.”
- Bilinguals are less susceptible to egocentric bias and better at understanding other people’s belief because they are able to block out what they already know and focus on another’s point of view, according to a study by Paula Rubio-Fernandez and Sam Glucksberg, psychologists at Princeton University.
- A study by A.L. Pettito suggests that being bilingual “wedges open” a window for learning languages, making it easier to master languages throughout one’s life.
- Children inheriting a native language from their parents connect them to their ancestors, entire family, culture, and community.
- Bilingual kids are easily able to make friends with other kids who speak the same language. This is important in establishing social connections in our increasingly diverse society.
- Bilingual kids are more culturally sensitive. According to author of Katherine Kinsler, author of The Superior Social Skills of Bilinguals , “If you think about it, this makes intuitive sense. Interpreting someone’s utterance often requires attending not just to its content, but also to the surrounding context. What does a speaker know or not know? What did she intend to convey? Children in multilingual environments have social experiences that provide routine practice in considering the perspectives of others: They have to think about who speaks which language to whom, who understands which content, and the times and places in which different languages are spoken.”
- Bilinguals were shown to have delayed onset of Alzheimer’s disease when compared to monolinguals (source). Neuropsychologist Tamar Gollan of the University of California, San Diego, found that individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism, those who are proficient in each language, were more resistant than others to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease: the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset.
- Bilinguals have an advantages in the real world in terms of employment and other economic opportunities.
- Bilinguals are able to read and appreciate literature written in another language, talk to people in their native language, travel to another country and be able to read signs, haggle, and know what is going on around them
Some articles though suggest that some of the cognitive advantage of bilingualism may be overstated, but concede that it definitely has benefits.
Tips on how to raise a bilingual child
Children do not become bilingual naturally. Even though your child is exposed to two languages, at some point he or she might just stick to the majority language and forget the second language. Usually, you as the parent, need to do some planning, spend effort and adopt strategies to successfully raise a child who knows two languages. You need to ask questions like how do you expose your child equally to two languages, who speaks what and when, what materials can you use to promote your child’s two language learning?
Below are some tips that can help you answer these questions:
- Start early. Speak to them with both languages from the time your child is a baby
- Find the right balance for your child to learn the two languages. To accomplish this, conduct an audit to see the patterns of the use of language in your home and your community. Try to balance the exposure of your child to both languages in terms of speaking, reading and writing.
- Do not mix languages. To achieve balance of exposure to both languages, you may want to consider having one parent speaking one language, and the other parent another. Another strategy would be to nurture your child in the weaker language in her early years at home. Then when she starts school, she can withstand the more powerful majority language.
- Encourage your child to use just one language per conversation. Do not switch language during the same conversation with your child.
- Also, use one language per activity. When engaging with your child such as reading or playing with him, communicate with your child exclusively with one language at a time. Have a designated time when you use one language or the other. Do not combine languages, like speaking Spanglish for example.
- Immerse your child in language all day. Integrate it into everyday routines and interactions. Talk to each other a lot.
- Don’t forget the influence of grandparents, caregivers, babysitters, nannies and au pairs. Make them aware of your intention to make your child bilingual. Let them know that you appreciate whatever help they can give you to achieve that goal.
- Make language learning enjoyable. Incorporate it into silly songs, games and activities.
- Read to your kid books in the second language.
- For babies and toddlers, using media and edutainment materials like TV shows, DVD’s, apps and games are not nearly as effective as human interaction. If you have to use these, interact with your child while using these devices. For example, talk to him about what is happening in the shows or apps that he is playing, ask simple questions or share ideas. According to Lise Eliot, a well-known baby expert and neurologist, “Babies prefer humans over anything inanimate.” In her words: “Babies, infants, and children (not to mention adults) learn best from interaction with other humans. It’s wired into us. In order to learn, children need language situations where the conversations are interactive, adaptive, and pitched at their level. If the conversations are immediately focused on the things they are interested in, that can only help. This is true for learning in general, and also for language learning.”
- Push yourself and your child to communicate with a second language beyond the basic and social way. Help him communicate ideas and complex thoughts.
- For older kids, media and edutainment help reinforce their second language learning. Also consider iPods and digital music player and load them with second language learning materials as gifts.
- Treat your child to shows, fairs, and other cultural events that involves the second language.
- Praise your child when she makes an effort of communicating in a second language.
- Socialize with other parents who are raising their children to speak the same language. You can encourage each other and share ideas and triumphs. It also gives you an opportunity to create future play dates with the ultimate language teachers – other kids.
- Be consistent once you have made a plan to decide how to use your languages, commit to it.
- Make your family commit to your effort to raise a bilingual child.
- Be patient and stay strong when doubts about your success creeps in!