Worldwide, it is estimated that there are more second language speakers of English than native speakers AND…there are as many bilingual children as there are monolingual children!
These trends mean that many children are being raised as bilingual. Sometimes bilingualism is a necessity, as a child’s parents may not be fluent in the dominant language spoken in the community, but sometimes bilingualism is a choice, and parents may wish to expose their child to another language, even if they do not speak or use a second language fluently themselves.
There is a “Critical Period” theory that suggests that there is a window of time (early childhood) during which a second language is most easily learned. It is therefore better to learn a second language as a young child. Young children have been found to achieve better native-like pronunciation than older children or adult second language learners, and they seem to achieve better long-term grammatical skills than older learners
Simultaneous Second Language Learning
Simultaneous learners include children under the age of 3 who are exposed to two languages at the same time. These children may include those who are exposed to one language by parents at home and another language by providers in their early childhood program. Simultaneous learners are also young children whose parents each speak separate languages to them at home (e.g., one parent speaks Hebrew to the child, and the other parent speaks English to the child).
Before 6 months of age, simultaneous learners learn both languages at similar rates and do not prefer one language over the other. This is because they build separate but equally strong language systems in their brains for each of the languages they hear. These separate systems allow children to learn more than one language without becoming confused. In fact, the pathways infants develop in their brains for each of the languages they hear are similar to the single pathway developed by children who are only exposed to one language.
At 6 months, children begin to notice differences between languages and may begin to prefer the language they hear more.
Early on, children are able to differentiate their two languages and have been shown to switch languages according to their conversation partner (e.g. speak Hebrew to one parent, then switch to English with an English-speaking parent)
Cognitive Benefits of Simultaneous Language Development
- Bilingual children are better able to focus their attention on relevant information and ignore distractions1
- Bilingual individuals have been shown to be more creative and better at planning and solving complex problems than monolinguals2
- The effects of aging on the brain are diminished among bilingual adults3
There are many other cognitive benefits for young children who are simultaneously exposed to more than one language. For example, they have greater neural activity and denser tissue in the areas of the brain related to memory, attention, and language than monolingual learners. These indicators are associated with long-term positive cognitive outcomes for children (Bialystok 2001, Mechelli et al., 2004; Kovelman, Baker, & Petitto, 2006).
Two great myths about Bilingualism!
- Bilingualism causes language delay – FALSE! While a bilingual child’s vocabulary in each individual language may be smaller than average, his total vocabulary (from both languages) will be at least the same size as a monolingual child4. Bilingual children may say their first words slightly later than monolingual children, but still within the normal age range (between 8-12 months). And when bilingual children start to produce short sentences, they develop grammar along the same patterns and timelines as children learning one language. Bilingualism itself does not cause language delay.
- When children mix their languages it means that they are confused and having trouble becoming bilingual – FALSE! When children use both languages within the same sentence or conversation, it is known as “code mixing” or “code switching”. Parents sometimes worry that this mixing is a sign of language delay or confusion. However, code mixing is a natural part of bilingualism. Proficient adult bilinguals code mix when they converse with other bilinguals, and it should be expected that bilingual children will code-mix when speaking with other bilinguals.
Bilingual children have a cognitive advantage!
A new study out of York University in Toronto suggests that exposure to two languages may actually give toddlers a cognitive advantage over young children who use only one language. The study involved 63 monolingual (single language) and bilingual children who averaged 24 months of age. The bilingual children had been exposed to both of their languages since birth. The toddlers underwent a variety of tests designed to assess levels of self-control in thought and action (technically referred to as “executive functioning”).
While most of the tests showed no difference between the abilities of bilingual and monolingual children, there was one test in which the bilingual toddlers showed remarkably better results.
The Shape Stroop Test
The toddlers in the study were shown pictures of large fruits containing smaller fruits – for example, a large banana with a small orange inside it. They were then asked to point to the small fruits. Selecting the smaller fruit is challenging for a young child because of the natural instinct to pay more attention to the larger fruit. The toddlers had to exercise self-control or “executive functioning” to suppress the natural response of pointing to the larger fruit, and to pay attention to the smaller fruit instead.
While bilingual children scored correctly 50 percent of the time on the Shape Stroop Test, the monolingual children scored correctly only 31 percent of the time.
These results suggest that bilingual children may have a superior ability to:
- focus on the one important thing, not allowing other stimuli to distract him – this requires what is called “selective attention”; and
- change their response according to the demands of the situation – this shows “cognitive flexibility”.
- Selective attention and cognitive flexibility are both important aspects of executive functioning.
Why might bilingual children have these advantages?
When a bilingual toddler wants to say something, both of his languages become activated in his brain and they compete internally with each other (it’s as if both languages are saying “Pick me, pick me!”). In order to communicate, the toddler has to select the language he needs and actively suppress the other language to prevent it from intruding. This requires both selective attention and cognitive flexibility. These skills may be stronger in bilingual children simply because they’ve been exercised more.
What this means
One of the implications of this study is that bilingual toddlers may be starting school with a significant cognitive advantage in the area of self-control or “executive functioning”. This can have an important impact on both their academic and social future.
For example, if a child has good self-control, he’ll find it easier to focus his attention on what’s important and he’ll be less likely to become distracted while trying to listen to a teacher or complete a task. In social situations, he may have greater ease in tailoring his behaviour to a specific context. And when his peers suggest a potentially harmful activity, his self-control may make it easier for him to refuse.
So if you’re wondering whether exposing a young child to a second language early in their development is a good idea, the answer is yes!
- 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
- Paradis, J., Genesee, F., & Crago, M. (2011). Dual Language Development and Disorders: A handbook on bilingualism & second language learning. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.
- Canadian Council on Learning (2008). Parlez-vous français? The advantages of bilingualism in Canada. Available online: http://www.ccl-cca.ca/pdfs/LessonsInLearning/Oct-16-08-The-advantages-of-bilingualism.pdf
- Pearson, B.Z., Fernandez, S.C., Lewedeg, V., & Oller, D.K. (1997). The relation of input factors to lexical learning by bilingual infants. Applied Psycholinguistics, 18, 41-58.
- Genesee, F. H. (2009). Early childhood bilingualism: Perils and possibilities. Journal of Applied Research on Learning, 2 (Special Issue), Article 2, pp. 1-21.