Bilingualism! A guide for parents and educators
How to Facilitate Bilingual Language Development:
- An adequate amount of exposure to each language is necessary. Children need a sufficient amount of sustained exposure to each language. Children also need to be exposed to a good language model (in both languages).
- Develop language in a natural way. Respect the language your child chooses to speak. Children express themselves in the language that feels most natural to them. Remember that children are exposed to different languages in different contexts (e.g. at home, at daycare, with friends, etc.)
- View bilingualism as desirable. It is important to view bilingualism as a source of potential benefit rather than a source of difficulty for the child.
- Respect culture and the mother tongue. The language spoken at home, as well as family and cultural values, are very important. It is not recommended that a parent speak in a language that is not mastered. It is also not recommended that the family eliminate the language spoken at home if it is different from the language used at school.
Benefits of Bilingualism
Bilingualism has many advantages including academic, social, professional and cognitive benefits.
- Bilingualism facilitates selective attention, which in turn, helps to perform different tasks at the same time (e.g. solving a math problem often requires paying attention to only the important information).
- The benefits of bilingualism would be long-lasting (e.g. we know that the onset of dementia occurs later in bilingual adults).
Myths about Bilingualism
Each bilingual child is different. Some bilingual children are stronger in one of their languages (dominant language) while others have a more balanced bilingualism (equal language abilities in each language.) The amount of exposure to each language helps determine the type of bilingualism children may develop.
Learning two languages at the same time is harder than learning a single language: false
Research shows that, in as much as children are able to learn one language, they are able to learn two. Research also shows that children with language difficulties (e.g. specific language impairment) or developmental delays (e.g. Down Syndrome) are also able to learn two languages.
Bilingualism can cause a language problem: false
Language development in a bilingual child is different than in a monolingual child. In terms of speed of learning, it is possible there is a discrepancy between bilingual and monolingual language development. However this discrepancy is not problematic and doesn’t explain a language delay. Language milestones (e.g. first words, first sentences) follow a similar timeline in bilingual and monolingual children.
Language problems are worse in bilingual children: false
Language problems are no more severe in bilingual children than they are in monolingual children. Actually, the profile of language needs is roughly similar in bilingual and monolingual children.
Using two languages in one sentence indicates a language problem: false
This phenomenon is called « code switching » (e.g. « I want the bateau»), and it is a natural way for bilingual children and adults to express themselves. It does not mean the individual has a language problem or that they are confusing the two languages.
One parent, one language: false
This is not necessary and not always feasible. Parents should speak to their child in the language that feels the most natural and culturally appropriate. A parent might change languages based on the situation or the person they are speaking to.