Photo courtesy of Shauntel Bruner
By Lori Jena Freise
Today, the world is rapidly becoming more interconnected. It is fast-paced and forever advancing. Just as we experience these significant changes on a daily basis, our children will be witness to even more advances. It is up to us as parents and future parents to help guide them to success. The decision to teach our children more than one language is one of the most important and beneficial choices we can make. Sure, they’ll inevitably be enrolled in a French or Spanish course later on in their education career; however, children, have a far superior learning capacity until their teens. We as parents can provide our children with a head start to success by simply teaching them a second language!
Historically, early bilingualism was considered dangerous and was thought to cause language disorders, delayed language acquisition, and lead to confusion. Thankfully much has changed regarding this painful perception of early language learning.
First, let’s identify and disqualify the most common misconceptions:
- Bilingual children will be delayed in learning
- Children will simply become confused
- Bilinguals are less intelligent,
- Only using one language at home will improve a child’s success.
Bilingualism does not obstruct overall learning development.
Perhaps the thought that children may be delayed in their learning and linguistic accomplishments stems from the common knowledge that children in bilingual households generally begin speaking a bit later than monolingual children. The difference, if any, is only a matter of months. The noted delays are well within the range of the normal rate of language development in monolingual children. And like all babies, once they start talking, they never stop! I can confirm from personal experience that my son was speaking at just exactly the same time as his peers. My theory for those who do begin speaking later than average is that the child’s brain is carefully identifying and storing both languages’ syntax and phonetic tendencies before deciding his/her first word. After all, there are so many more words to choose from! It is true that bilingual people tend to have marginally smaller vocabularies in each language than the average monolingual. It is also common to hear bilinguals mentally scanning their brains for the right word before finally pin-pointing it. Every study since the sixties has proven that these minor “set-backs” are miniscule in comparison to the advantages of being bilingual. The first study led by Elizabeth Peal and Wallace Lambert at McGill University in 1962, stated that bilingualism does not obstruct overall learning development. By refuting these alleged learning difficulties of bilingual children they also eliminate any causes of parental or academic concern about any possible confusion in these children.
Bilingual children are not confused.
A common belief is that a child hearing two languages will generate some sort of “confusion” within the child. If the suggested confusion relates to language differentiating (difficulty identifying the languages and their differences), perhaps this is perceived when a toddler switches between both languages. Nonetheless, this is simply the natural learning process for a bilingual. It is different than a monolingual toddler, indeed, but entails the same learning process of trial and error and finally, understanding. Bilingual children will learn and adapt to both languages eventually just as a monolingual toddler may make a minor grammatical error for a short while and later outgrow it. For example, it is common for toddlers to mix pronouns (“Her has a teddy bear”). My son is two years old, knows that “water” is “agua” and vice versa. He prefers “agua” as he began to say it first (I imagine because “agua” was easier to pronounce). So I find that he may say, “Dame agua” or “Gimme agua”. The two mistakes are different, but it is during the same learning phase in which a bilingual might mix his/ her two languages that a monolingual toddler confuses pronouns.
If the suggested confusion relates to whether a child recognizes the distinction between the languages, I’d like to refer to the findings in a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, where the focus was prenatal language recognition. The subjects weren’t even able to speak yet as they were monolingual and bilingual babies; half taken from Tagalog and English speaking parents who commonly spoke both languages while the baby was in the womb and the other half with only English-speaking parents. They used the “sucking test”, first determining that infants begin to suck when stimulated with interest. Infants were read to in both languages. Both portrayed stimulated interest for equal amounts of time when spoken to in English. Then, keeping to the same language, they changed speakers to see if stimulation arose with a new voice- no such outcome. They then had the babies read to in Tagalog. Infants with only English-speaking parents lost interest in the foreign language more quickly while those with both languages spoken at home were equally as stimulated as with the study in English. The results confirm that a) both groups of infants recognized language differences and that b) bilingual infants do not confuse their home languages starting from the first moments of life. To me, these results are phenomenal and prove the ingenuity of even baby brains!
Bilinguals are certainly not less intelligent.
The unfortunate belief that bilingual children experience difficulties in learning vocabulary, articulation, grammar and composition stems from poor studies which were done prior to the 1960s. Finally researchers caught a grave error; controlled research must take into account some variables which, until that point, had not been isolated or even identified. These variables include the bilingual subjects’ degree of bilingualism, socioeconomic status, the age at which the second language was learned, if the language was learned academically or naturally, and also the degree of the second language and culture’s economical presence. In 1962 Peal and Lambert’s study included almost 200 bilingual and monolingual children aged 10, and took into consideration the above variables. They chose bilinguals who were competent in both languages for their age. Results proved that bilinguals tested higher in both nonverbal and verbal skills, concept formation and overall flexibility in cognitive thinking. An interesting study by Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist at York University in Toronto, tested grammatical concepts in bilingual and monolingual students. She provided phrases and asked students if the sentence contained grammatical errors. Children in both categories giggled at the sentence, “Apples growed on trees” and noted it was silly and grammatically incorrect. Her findings were that both had an equal level of grammatical understanding. One interesting difference, however, was when the students were presented with the sentence, “Apples grow on noses”. Children in both categories giggled that it was silly, however the bilingual children pointed out that although silly, the sentence is grammatically correct, showing that bilinguals have the ability to block out irrelevant information and concentrate on the task at hand.
Bilingualism certainly does not equal failure, but rather opportunity.
The common misconception that a bilingual child will be less successful is equally as ridiculous as the rest. In fact, the truth is exactly the opposite. We live in a globalized world of increasing international trade and endless media technology. Benefits for a bilingual’s future include a more promising education, more career opportunities and a higher pay in this rapidly-growing, cosmopolitan, global economy. In fact, being raised as a bilingual person promotes nothing but positive conclusions.
Two languages or more are good for the brain.
Adults do not commonly blend two languages when speaking to a monolingual. This is natural as the speaker knows to only speak one language. With each word, however, it is thought that both languages surface and it is an acquired skill of the speaker to execute in one sole language, sort of a life-long brain exercise which strengthens one’s cognitive skills. As stated in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, “When a bilingual speaks two languages regularly, speaking in just one of these languages requires use of the control network to limit interference from the other language and to ensure the continued dominance of the intended language.” This is also thought to strengthen multitasking and attention spans. Bilinguals tend to test higher on standardized tests than monolinguals and have a strong understanding of mathematical and musical skills. Studies also show a significant health difference between monolinguals and bilinguals in later years! Bilingual patients with Alzheimer’s tend to be affected four to five years later than monolingual patients!
Bilingualism on a more personal level…
The first and most obvious advantage of learning more than one language is the ability to speak two languages, thus being able to converse with more members of our community. Essentially it means having the knowledge of two or more terms for one thing, concept or idea, which leads to a more analytical awareness of language. Understanding two languages helps both children and adults to be aware of the nuances of both cultures such as sayings, jokes and idioms, and also opens up cultural acquisition of literature, music, television and thus more dynamic worldly perceptions. People with two languages are considered more empathetic to others’ cultures and differences while having a clear and strong sense of their own identity.
It is thought that as languages are different and each entails its own culture, tendencies, and perspectives. In the 1960’s Susan Ervin-Tripp of the University of California at Berkeley did a study to find out if language is deeply entwined with thought and reasoning. The study included asking bilinguals to finish sentences. For example, “Real friends should ____”. In Japanese, answers commonly included “Help each other out”. When asked in English, however, answers frequently included “Be very frank”. This is a direct reflection that our language and culture influence us and even our own values may vary based on the language we are currently using. Nairan Ramirez-Esparza, a psychologist at the University of Washington, also did a study including surveys. The focus was on personal values. The same tests were given in English and Spanish but the answers were different and each language’s answers showed tendencies, proving that bilinguals display different values and attitudes when responding in different languages. This makes perfect sense to me, as I am often told that I “seem different” when speaking my other language, Spanish. Although I am one person, my personality includes two languages in which I can portray its natural flares. When one language doesn’t express my feeling, the other language kicks in.
Language is a portal through which we express ourselves. Learning an additional language is not only healthy, but can lead to a world of new opportunities, experiences, and tools of self-expression. It opens the brain to more flexible ways of thinking and acquisition.
“Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things, but learning another way to think about things.” --Flora Lewis
Photo courtesy of Shauntel Bruner