Bilingualism - Are Two Languages Better Than One?
Written by Keely Hutton, M.S.Ed., Reg. CALSPO, Bright Spot Speech-Language Pathologist
Raise your hand if you speak more than one language! Raise your hand if you have kids and have wondered if they are able to learn more than one language at the same time!
Some questions speech-language pathologists encounter fairly often: is learning two languages bad for my child? I speak one language and my partner speaks another - should we choose only one language to teach our child? If I speak to my child in two languages, am I going to confuse them or delay their language development? At Bright Spot, we’ve received plenty of questions and concerns related to this topic. The answers to some of these questions are addressed below, in the hopes that you will teach your child as many languages as you want!
Let’s start with some background about language learning. Language learning begins before babies are even born! In utero, babies can hear the sounds and rhythm of language. Because they spend so much time listening to their mother’s voice, by the time a baby is born, it is able to differentiate its mother’s voice from other voices (Queen’s University, 2003).
Once they are born, infants are sensitive to the speech sounds of all languages - we’ve checked! Babies can hear tiny differences in the sounds of different languages that adults who are not native speakers cannot! Over time, when babies are exposed to only one or two or three… languages, they lose their sensitivity to the sounds of languages they are not learning, and hone in on the sounds of the languages to which they are being consistently exposed (Werker & Desjardins, 1995).
Language learning continues through childhood and into adolescence. Young children are particularly sensitive to language, and, for some reason, their brains are primed to learn languages. This sensitivity lasts roughly until puberty. We refer to it as “the critical period” because exposure to language during this time is, well, critical! Once the critical period ends, it becomes much more difficult to learn a second language (Purves, Augustine, Fitzpatrick, et al., 2001). Of course it’s not impossible to learn a new language as a teenager or adult; however, learning a language beyond the critical period won’t result in “native competency” (the ability to speak a language as fluently as a native speaker).
It’s important to keep in mind that a child learning more than one language from birth will follow a different developmental trajectory than a child learning only one language - but that is perfectly OK! There is already variation in the developmental milestones of typically developing monolinguals; for example, some children say their first word around 10 months, others might say their first word around 12 months. When a child is learning more than one language, they are learning at least two labels for things in their environment - that is a lot to take in, so we don’t expect that these children will develop following exactly the same patterns as monolingual children (Lowry, 2015).
Are infants or young children learning more than one language confused?
Research says, “Nope!” Children learning two languages will mix words from the two languages in one sentence, which is sometimes perceived negatively as a sign of confusion. In reality, this is a common part of bilingual development. As bilingual children become more proficient in both languages, they tend to “code-switch” or switch fluently between their two languages as needed. Again, this is not a sign of confusion, or a lack of proficiency. Research has shown that when bilingual individuals code-switch, they follow predictable grammar rules of both languages (Byers-Heinlein & Lew-Williams, 2013).
A recent review of the research in this area found that bilinguals compared to monolinguals reported experiencing the onset of AD symptoms 4.7 years later (Brini et al., 2020).
Bilingualism or multilingualism is the norm! English is the dominant language across the globe, which may lead to the perception that the majority of the world’s population is made up of monolingual English speakers. However, in the general population, it is actually far more common to speak two or more languages than to speak only one (Grosjean, 2020).
Additionally, there is some evidence suggesting that speaking two or more languages has cognitive benefits, and can buffer against cognitive diseases, such as Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). A recent review of the research in this area found that bilinguals compared to monolinguals reported experiencing the onset of AD symptoms 4.7 years later (Brini et al., 2020). Other researchers have suggested that individuals who speak more than one language are better able to focus their attention (Poulin-Dubois et al., 2011).
So we know that babies are born sensitive to the sounds of all languages, and are primed to learn languages until roughly puberty. Because children are born ready to learn languages, we know that teaching them more than one language from the get-go will not cause a language delay. We also know that children who are learning more than one language are not confused, even though they might switch back and forth between the languages within the same sentence. Being able to speak two or more languages may even have cognitive benefits! If you haven’t been persuaded that speaking two or more languages can be beneficial, think of what a great asset it is to add to a resume!
If you’re trying to support a young bilingual child, do what feels most natural to you! If you’re concerned about your child’s language development, reach out to a speech-language pathologist, and they will be able to provide some insight.
Brini, S., Sohrabi, H. R., Hebert, J. J., Forrest, M. R. L., Laine, M., Hämäläinen, H., Karrasch, M., Peiffer, J. J., Martins, R. N., & Fairchild, T. J. (2020). Bilingualism is associated with a delayed onset of dementia but not with a lower risk of developing it: A systematic review with meta-analyses. Neuropsychology Review, 30(1), 1.
Byers-Heinlein, K., & Lew-Williams, C. (2013). Bilingualism in the early years: What the science says. Learn Landsc, 7(1), 95-112.
Grosjean, F. (2020). Bilingualism's best kept secret: More than half of the world's population is bilingual. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/life-bilingual/201011/bilingualisms-best-kept-secret.
Lowry, L. (2015). Bilingualism in young children: Separating fact from fiction. The Hanen Centre. http://www.hanen.org/Helpful-Info/Articles/Bilingualism-in-Young-Children--Separating-Fact-fr.aspx.
Poulin-Dubois, D., Blaye, A., Coutya, J & Bialystok, E. (2011). The effects of bilingualism on toddlers’ executive functioning. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 108(3), 567-579.
Purves, D., Augustine, G.J., Fitzpatrick, D., et al. (Eds.; 2001). The Development of Language: A Critical Period in Humans. Neuroscience (2nd Ed.). Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK11007/
Queen's University. (2003, May 13). Fetus heart races when mom reads poetry; New findings reveal fetuses recognize mother’s voice in-utero. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 3, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2003/05/030513080440.htm.
Werker, J. F., & Desjardins, R. N. (1995). Listening to speech in the first year of life: Experiential influences on phoneme perception. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 4, 76-81.