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Bilingual better?

Many children around the world are growing up exposed to two languages from an early age. That means we are seeing more and more bilingual children around us; bilingualism being defined as the ability to use two languages in everyday life – and known as multilingualism if it involves more than two languages.

The rise in bilingualism has raised many questions and concerns, especially amongst parents of bilingual children. The truth is that there are contradicting views about raising a child in a bilingual environment, yet the majority of arguments championing against bilingualism are often based on misperceptions and outright myths.

So let us take a look at some of the key concerns people have regarding bilingualism, and examine what the truth actually is.

Bilingualism does not confuse children

One of the biggest concerns parents have regarding bilingualism is whether it will cause confusion for the child, and most signs point to no. Research has found that children are able to distinguish between two languages, and are capable of developing two separate linguistic systems. Bilingual children can easily switch from one language to another, and are able to mix words from both languages in the same sentence or in a single conversation, much the same as bilingual adults. This is known as codeswitching.

There are many reasons that lead to codeswitching in bilingual children. One reason is that these children are exposed to codeswitching frequently in their environment. Another reason is that bilinguals may use words from the other language when they are unable to find the word they need in the language they are speaking.

Keeping both languages separate is not necessarily successful

Parents who are teaching their children two languages are usually told that each parent should use one language, to avoid confusion. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support this oft-touted piece of advice, simply because there is no evidence that bilingualism confuses children, as mentioned above. It has actually been found that children who hear two languages from both parents learn both languages successfully.

Also, it is important to consider the strategies used by parents to endorse bilingualism. Ensuring balanced exposure to the two languages will most likely lead to effective acquisition of both languages.

Bilingualism does not delay language development

There is a misperception that bilingualism causes language delay in children. When children learn two languages at the same time, the rate of development in each language is expected to be slightly slower than monolingual children. This is not surprising; however, evidence suggests that bilingual children catch up to monolingual children as they grow older.

Research has also shown that although bilingual children develop a more limited vocabulary in each language, their overall vocabulary in both languages will be similar to monolingual children. It is common that bilingual children produce their first words later than monolinguals, but still within the typical range.

Therefore, bilingual children may be delayed compared to monolingual children, yet they are often within the typical range of development. However, if your bilingual child is showing significant delays in language development, it might be a good idea to pay a visit to a speech-language pathologist.

Bilingualism can enhance literacy

Bilingual children who are exposed to two different written languages show high levels of reading and writing abilities. Their perception of the association between written and spoken words is known to be better than monolinguals.

Codeswitching is normal!

Codeswitching — mixing words from two languages within the same sentence — is frequent amongst bilinguals. Most parents of bilingual children are bilingual themselves, therefore, it is very common for both sides to use codeswitching frequently. Unfortunately, there is not enough research conducted about the impact of codeswitching on language development. Nonetheless, bilinguals appear to successfully manage the use of codeswitching from an early age.

The best age to learn two languages

Many people think that it is best to learn a language at an early age. The “critical period” theory suggests that learning a second language is easiest during early childhood. However, although our brains are more easily able to learn language earlier in life, the relationship between biological and environmental factors impacts language learning.

It is generally acknowledged that younger learners develop more native-like pronunciations, and a bigger, more varied vocabulary compared to older learners. However, older learners are still able to pick up vocabulary, grammar and academic language.

Thus, earlier is better, but it’s never too late to learn a new language.

Khadeejah Buabbas is a speech and language therapist at FSRI, working with patients suffering from a wide range of speech, language, hearing, and swallowing disorders. As a pathologist, Khadeejah has experience working with a variety of patients, including both children and adults, in a range of different settings including schools, hospitals, and community health centers. You can contact her by calling FSRI at 25720338.

By Khadeejah Buabbas

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