Learning two languages (Bilingualism)
“For many bilingual households, language is the bridge to the essence of who we are and to the heart of our heritage.”
Bilingualism is acknowledged as a positive thing. Research indicates that exposure to two languages early in life carries far-reaching benefits. How can parents support a child who is growing up learning two languages?
Each child is unique. To demonstrate, let me first tell you a little about the Salbach family. I met the Salbach’s while I was living in Berlin, Germany. David and Stef were both bilingual. In fact, both had the envious task of translating for me on two separate occasions (my German was terrible at the time). As far as I could tell, they got the point across because my audience smiled, laughed and looked serious at the appropriate times. I never confirmed this, but I think both David and Stef mastered their English during a five year sojourn working in the USA. English is a staple for most Europeans, especially the travelling and business minded ones. It is admirable and has the cumulative effect of making the average young Australian visitor feel that they somehow missed out on a few IQ points. It gets worse when you meet people like Paul, another German my age, who speaks German, English, Spanish, Czech and “sort of” French…and if I translate that from the language of humility, he means fluent French.
Enter Klara, David and Stef’s twelve year old daughter. Klara seemed to understand everything I said, but I wasn’t really sure. Adding to my suspicions of total comprehension was that she seemed to be the one who would re-translate what I thought were my reasonable attempts at German to her peers. After a while, my suspicions were confirmed. At twelve years of age, Klara’s English comprehension was as good as watching Will Smith and Garry Barlow collaborate on the “The Fresh Prince of Bel-air” theme song.
I didn’t get a lot of English back from Klara. To be fair though, I wasn’t giving a lot of German. I wondered if we were on the same page; good comprehension, not so good expression. A few months later, I was chatting with David and he gave me a bit of insight into Klara’s journey towards the English language.
David and Stef had decided that they wanted Klara to be taught English very early on (simultaneous language acquisition; second language English). After some research, they found an approach recommending one parent use the primary language, and the other parent use the secondary language. David was allocated English and Stef was allocated German. For the first ten years, David spoke, read, shouted, whispered and wrote only in English to Klara. This impressed me, and the outcome surprised me. David reported that in those ten years, Klara did not produce a single word of English. He would speak in English, she would respond in German. Punkt.
Since this initial period, Klara and I have had many fabulous chats in English. Her English expression is far better than my German expression, so this story is all a little bit relative. I still wonder though, in those early twelve or so years, why was no English produced? What is the most effective way to support a child learning two languages? If you don’t speak another language but want your child to, what’s the best approach?
I revert here to my baseline statement that each child is unique. This is critical. Languages vary, home life varies, school environments vary, and intensity of input varies. Infants growing up bilingual, learn the elements of each of their two languages simultaneously, while nonetheless keeping them apart (Werker, 2012). Over the first weeks and months of life, infants learn about the sounds and sights of their native language, and use that perceptual knowledge to start ‘pulling out’ words and grammar (Werker, 2012). Bilingualism is a fascinating area of ongoing research.
Frequently asked questions
Will learning two languages at the same time cause speech and language difficulties?
The simple answer is no. Bilingualism itself does not cause language delay. Raising a child in a bilingual environment neither increases nor reduces the chance of a language disorder or delay (Baker, 2000)
Will development be slowed when learning two languages?
- Research indicates that children learning two languages will achieve similar developmental milestone stones to those learning one language (monolingual) (Paradis, Genesee, & Crago, 2011). For example, most bilingual children speak their first words by the time they are 1 year old (e.g., “mama” or “dada”). Initial vocabulary size may be smaller in each language; however the cumulative total is similar to that of a monolingual child. Early language milestones may be slightly later, but will occur within normal developmental timeframes (i.e. first words between 8-15 months) (Meisel, 2004)
- By age 2, most bilingual children can use two-word phrases (e.g., “my ball” or “no juice”). These are similar language developmental milestones seen in children who are monolingual.
- Research indicates that early bilingual experience does not interfere with the development of the fundamental ability to form word–object associations, suggesting that this mechanism is robust across different early language environments (Byers-Heinlein, Fennell & Werker, 2013).
Are there benefits in being bilingual?
Research indicates that:
- Bilingual children are better able to focus their attention on relevant information and ignore distractions (Byers-Heinlein, 2012).
- There is an improved capacity for switching between strategies, enhancing attention control and the ability to learn two rules at the same time (Poulin-Dubois, Blaye & Bialystok, 2010).
- There is an increase in creativity and better skills in planning and solving complex problems than monolinguals.
- Bilingual individuals have greater access to people and resources
I’ve heard that it’s a good idea for one parent to speak one language and the other to speak the other language. Does this work?
There is no research to indicate that this is a ‘better’ approach to bilingual language learning (Paradis, Genesee, & Crago, 2011). While this is an option for families, parents shouldn’t be too concerned if both parents speak their native language to the child or mix languages. Families should choose an approach that is comfortable and suits their way of life.
When speaking to my child, is it ok to use both languages together – code-mix?
Language mixing — using words from two languages in the same sentence — is a common occurrence among bilingual parents. A recent study examining language mixing indicated that 90 per cent of parents reported mixing their languages in interactions with their children (Byers-Heinlein, 2012). The researchers suggest that this can lead to an initial mild reduction in vocabulary size and rate of vocabulary acquisition. However, the study also indicated that this is not usually a long term disadvantage. Even if exposure to language mixing is initially challenging for vocabulary acquisition, it likely has benefits over the long term (i.e. improved capacity for switching between strategies, enhancing attention control and the ability to learn two rules at the same time). See “Are there benefits in being bilingual?
What if my child is using two language’s in one sentence?
It is a misperception that if a child mixes languages initially (code-mix), it indicates confusion. Code mixing is a normal part of bilingual language development (Genesee, 2009). Proficient adult bilinguals code mix (use two languages together) when they converse with other bilinguals. It should be expected that bilingual children will code-mix when speaking with other bilinguals (Goldstein & Kohnert, 2005).
How is a second language acquired?
There are two primary ways by which a child acquires two languages.
- Simultaneous Acquisition occurs when a child is raised bilingually from birth, or when the second language is introduced before the age of three. Families use two languages from a child’s infancy. Many children grow up learning two languages at the same time (Paradis, Genesee, & Crago, 2011) .
- Sequential Acquisition occurs when a second language is introduced after the first language is well-established (usually after the age of three). Some families choose to use only one language at home. A child learns the second language when he or she starts school or migrates to a new country with a new language. When the second language is introduced, there is often a ‘silent/non-verbal period’ where the child takes time to comprehend the new language. This is considered a typical process, ranging from a few weeks to months (Paradis, Genesee, & Crago, 2011).
As a parent, how can I support the learning of two languages?
Language learning requires:
- Rich input. Listening comprehension – parents can provide commentary in the native or secondary language about and during activities of daily living, accompanied by gesture, facial expressions etc. (Kersten, et al. 2010).
- Functional interactions using both languages. Meaningful interactions are integral in learning two languages (Kersten, et al. 2010). A child cannot learn a language just by watching TV shows in that language.
- Opportunities to produce and ‘test’ their language output. Trial and error means that a child receives feedback and is able to correct language use. This often can occur in a natural play environment (Cameron, 2001., Long, 1996).
What can I do to achieve a ‘rich input’ and create ‘functional interactions’?
(The below links are relevant to residents in Sydney, however it is highly likely that your own city may offer similar opportunities. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in Australia, the most common languages spoken in the home other than English include Mandarin (1.6 %), Italian (1.4 %), Arabic (1.3 %), Cantonese (1.2 %) and Greek (1.2 %) (ABS, 2011)
- Teaching of a second language does not have to be explicit – the daily routine and play scenarios are great environments for language learning (baking, reading, playground, bath time, at the dinner table, driving in the car).
- Play games and read books in both languages (It’s important that your child knows the names of the different languages he/she speaks).
- Tell stories in your language. Encourage your child to join in with the story telling.
- Learn nursery rhymes and songs in both languages. Rhythm can help semantic (word) memory. (For the French speakers amongst us Bonjour Chez Vous website may help)
- Attend concerts, plays and films where your child will hear people using your language. Check out this fabulous Australian theatre group in Berlin. Their aim is to promote English and German language use through theatre. I’ve been with German school groups to see the productions and they are very well done. There may be like-minded groups in your own city. See Platypus Theater
- Try to find other children/families who speak the same language. Playing in groups is a simple and effective way of achieving opportunities for ‘testing out’ language skills (if your child is English and French speaking French Playgroup website may give you some ideas for activities and other cultural links.
- Don’t just focus on directly learning the language – encourage the cultural aspects as well (see The Sydney Chinese Language & Culture Meetup or The Sydney Korean Language & Culture Meetup Group as examples).
Don’t worry or be disheartened if your child seems reluctant to speak a second language – the benefits are still there. Be mindful to keep the learning experience positive.
If you have concerns about your child’s language and speech development, a speech pathologist will be able to assess and identify any difficulties. Please contact Eugene or Jenna for a consultation.
- American Speech Language Hearing Association. The Advantages of Being Bilingual.Available online
- Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2011). Available online
- Baker, C. (2000). A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
- Byers-Heinlein., K. (2012). Parental language mixing: Its measurement and the relation of mixed input to young bilingual children’s vocabulary size. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition (16)1, 32-48
- Byers-Heinlein., K, Fennell., C. & Werker., J. (2013). The development of associative word learning in monolingual and bilingual infants. Bilingualism: Language and cognition. 16(1), 198-205.
- Cameron., L. (2001). Teaching Languages to Young Learners. Cambridge: CUP.
- Centre for Applied Linguistics. Benefits of being bilingual. Available online:
- Kersten, K., Rohde, A., Schelletter, C., Steinlen, A. (2010): Guidelines for Language Use in Bilingual Preschools, in K. Kersten, A. Rohde, C. Schelletter, A.K. Steinlen (eds), Bilingual Preschools: Best Practices. Trier: WVT, 103-116.
- Poulin-Dubois, D., Blaye, A., Coutya, J., & Bialystok., E. (2010) The effects of bilingualism on toddlers’ executive functioning. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.
- Genesee., F (2009). Early childhood bilingualism: Perils and possibilities. Journal of Applied Research on Learning 2(2), 1-21.
- Goldstein, B. & Kohnert, K. (2005). Speech, language and hearing in developing bilingual children: Current findings and future directions. Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, 36, 264-267.
- Long, M. (1996). The role of the linguistic environment in second language acquisition. In W.C. Ritchie, T.K. Bhatia (eds.), Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. San Diego: Academic Press, 413-468
- Meisel, J. (2004). The Bilingual Child. In T. Bhatia & W. Ritchie (Eds.), The Handbook of Bilingualism. pp 91-113. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
- 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.
- Werker, J. (2012). Perceptual foundations of bilingual acquisition in infancy. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (1251) 50-1.