Language is a skill that is innate in every human. No matter what environment a child is brought up in, they have the capability to learn a language, and in many cases, two languages before starting school. In Québec, many families have one parent who speaks French and one parent who speaks English. Other families have one parent who speaks French or English and another parent who speaks a different language. Even if English, French, or another language is the only language spoken at home, a child can be exposed to a second language depending on the neighborhood where the family lives, or the daycare that the child attends.
Some parents, caregivers, and even teachers might think that exposing a child to several languages at a young age can confuse them and delay their learning of another language. Dr. Fred Genesee, Professor of Psychology at McGill University, has completed research and compiled data on learning two languages from an early age. Here are some conclusions and guidelines for parents based on current research.
Advantages to bilingualism or multilingualism
- Greater ability to communicate with all members of the family, including grandparents, or even family members who live in the family’s native country.
- Increased opportunity to develop a cultural identity and connect with the family’s heritage.
- Greater development of cognitive abilities which may result in better problem solving abilities and more creativity
- Increased ease of communication while travelling and more opportunities on a personal and professional level.
Learning two languages at the same time
It’s estimated that more children worldwide are growing up learning two languages than those who are learning only one language. 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 language-learning stages and progress at the same rate as children who learn only one language. For example, they begin to say their first words or first sentences within the same time frame.
It is true that there can sometimes be certain differences in bilingual language development. For instance, bilingual children may have a vocabulary that is a little more limited in each language. However, if we consider their total conceptual vocabulary (sum of vocabulary they know in either language), their vocabulary is similar to their peers.
Learning two languages does not cause confusion
There is no proof that young children who learn two languages at the same time get mixed up or confused. Children adapt according to the language spoken by the person with whom they’re interacting and are able to distinguish between the two languages. They sometimes use words from both languages in the same sentence. This phenomenon is called “code-mixing” and is a normal behavior for bilingual individuals. Bilingual adults often use “code-mixing” as well. When children “code-mix”, it is often because they don’t know the word in the language they’re speaking at that moment. By “code-mixing”, children find a way to complete their message. “Code-mixing” is not a sign of confusion, it suggests children are drawing on all the language resources they possess to get their message across. Research shows us that “code-mixing” is systematic and children typically follow appropriate grammatical rules.
Bilingualism is, without a doubt, an advantage both personally and professionally for an individual. If your child is lucky enough to be born into a bilingual or even trilingual family don’t worry about the myths surrounding learning more than one language at the same time. Your child will come out a winner no matter what!
Learn more about bilingualism in our video, featuring Speech Language Pathologist, Caroline Erdos.