By Amy Valeria Pereira Leon - Psychology student
Bilingualism strengthens cognitive abilities - bilingual people tend to be more creative and flexible. They can be more open-minded, and they also find it easier to focus on a variety of tasks simultaneously. Being able to speak two languages helps in other ways, for example in a career path, health, education, etc. Being able to switch from one language to the other with confidence gives the individual self-confidence and pride, in addition, it widens your horizons.
Many children around the world grow up exposed to two languages from an early age. Parents of bilingual infants and toddlers have important questions about the costs and benefits of early bilingualism and how to best support language acquisition in their children. But is it advisable to teach two languages during the childhood? Up to four months of age, children's brains can register all imaginable sounds. It is the stage when babies are potentially most receptive to being bilingual. One of the biggest concerns that parents have about raising children in a bilingual household is that it will cause confusion. But is there any scientific evidence that young bilinguals are confused?
One misunderstood behavior, which is often taken as evidence for confusion, is when bilingual children mix words from two languages in the same sentence. This is known as code mixing. In fact, code mixing is a normal part of bilingual development (Pearson, 2008). Languages differ on many dimensions; you can likely tell one from the other. Infants are also sensitive to these perceptual differences and are particularly attuned to a language’s rhythm. Infants can discriminate rhythmically dissimilar languages like English and Spanish at birth.
Many people would like to know if learning a second language can make children smarter. Popular books such as The Bilingual Edge by King & Mackey, and articles such as The Power of the Bilingual Brain by Kluger have touted the potential benefits of early bilingualism. One of the most important benefits of early bilingualism is often taken for granted: bilingual children will know multiple languages, which is important for travel, employment, speaking with members of one’s extended family, maintaining a connection to family culture and history, and making friends from different backgrounds. Young bilingual children also have enhanced sensitivity to certain features of communication, such as tone of voice.
Bilinguals also show some cognitive advantages. Bilinguals appear to perform a little bit better than monolinguals on tasks that involve switching between activities and inhibiting previously learned responses (Bialystok, Craik, & Luk, 2012). Now that we learn about the advantages of bilingualism in childhood, is it advisable to teach two languages in the early infancy?
No scientific study has ever shown that a young child’s brain is wired to learn only one language. According to research, children who learn two languages simultaneously go through the same processes, and progress at the same rate as children who learn only one language. They begin to start talking and say their first words or first sentences within the same time frame. Our brains may be more receptive to language earlier in life. But importantly our environment is also more conducive to language learning earlier in life. Many investigations, scientific articles, and other resources state that teaching two languages to an infant is a good idea and doesn’t have bad consequences in the development of the child.
So, what language strategies should parents use? The best answer is that parents should use whatever strategy promotes high-quality and high-quantity exposure to each of their child’s languages. This could include structured approaches, such as using different languages as a function of person (one-person-one-language), place (one language at home, one language outside), or time (alternating days of the week, or mornings/afternoons). Some parents insist on speaking only one language with their child, even if they can speak the other to ensure exposure to a language. Other families find that flexible use of the two languages, without fixed rules, leads to balanced exposure and positive interactions. Each family should consider the language proficiency of each family member as well as their language preference, in conjunction with their community situation. Families should regularly make an objective appraisal of what their child is hearing daily (rather than what they wish their child was hearing) and consider adjusting language use when necessary.
Remember, children all over the world learn more than one language all the time. Learning another language will not cause or worsen speech or language problems. Bilingual children develop language skills just as other children do. Teaching a second language will bring many opportunities in the future in a cultural area, job area, psychological area, social area, and many others… It’s worth it!
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Bialystok, E., Craik, F., & Luk, G. (2012). Bilingualism: consequences for mind and brain. Trends Cogn Sci, 16(4), 240-50
Pearson, B. Z. (2008). Raising a bilingual child. New York: Random House.