Children are amazing. They have the capacity to learn information and skills in short periods of time, and often need just one experience to know it. But learning two languages? Is that realistic? In a word, yes.
People all over the world are bilingual, and teaching their children two languages is natural. However, many parents are concerned that learning a second language will slow or cause difficulties with their primary language, or with language learning in general. Research suggests this is not the case. In fact, bilingualism is associated with a multitude of benefits. Some of these benefits include increases in:
- Vocabulary acquisition
- Rhyming skills (important for literacy development)
- Categorization skills
- Ability to use information in new ways
- Problem solving
- Listening skills
- Social skills
- Metalinguistics (thinking about words)
Additionally, benefits can be found in adulthood. An employee who is bilingual is an asset to a company, and speaking a foreign language is helpful when traveling. Recent research from York University in Toronto even suggests that people who use two (or more) languages have a delayed age of onset for dementia.
One way to expose your child to two languages is to speak two languages from the time he or she is born, known as simultaneous language acquisition. If this is not possible, you may wish to enroll your child in a preschool or community program that incorporates another language. Books, videos, and apps are also available, many specifically targeting language learning in children. Introduction of a second language after beginning to learn or mastering a primary language is called sequential language acquisition.
While your child is learning bilingually, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Most language milestones should continue to be reached on time (e.g., first words around 1 year, two-word combinations around 2 years). Receptive language, play skills, and social skills may be better indicators of abilities than expressive language skills only, particularly at a young age.
- At times, bilingual children may mix up grammatical forms, or use both languages in one utterance. This is not a sign of confusion, but is part of normal language development.
- Some children experience a “silent period,” a normal stage lasting up to a few months, following introduction to a new language.
- You may find it helpful to have predictable routines while teaching two languages. For example, some families prefer to have one parent speak English and the other parent speak Spanish, or to have English used for school and homework activities and Mandarin used for meal times and bedtime routines.
Bilingual learning can be a fun and rewarding experience for both you and your child. If you would like more information about bilingual development, contact a speech-language pathologist or visit the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association webpage (www.asha.org).
—Kellie Bouren, M.A., CCC-SLP, Pediatric Speech and Language Pathology Department at the Center for Childhood Speech and Language Disorders