Speaking Multiple Languages is Increasingly Common
We live in a society that is becoming increasingly global, with blurring lines across languages and cultures. There are over 6,500 languages in the world today, and only 196 countries. The United States is by no means a monolingual country. According to the 2010 Census, over 350 languages are spoken in US households in addition to English. Over 20 percent of US households speak a language besides English at home, or have a mother tongue besides English. That number is rising every year, and as a result, the number of bilingual children is also rising. More and more children are growing up exposed to more than one language, whether it be because they live in a multi-cultural, multilingual household, or because their caregivers choose to expose them to other languages because of the known benefits of being bilingual.
Advantages of Bilingual Children
Research has pointed to clear benefits for children who are brought up learning more than one language. Below are some of the areas that dual language proficiency seems to benefit most.
When someone knows multiple languages, both of those languages are active in the brain simultaneously, and they must mentally separate them when thinking or speaking. In order to operate in one language or another, bilingual individuals are accustomed to tasking their brain to switch back and forth between language systems. Because of this, multilingual kids tend to be better problem solvers. They have better memories and are able to recall things more quickly. Once they know two languages, they have a greater ability to acquire a third language or beyond.
Emotional and Social Development
Especially if they are going to be around family members or groups that only speak one language or the other, it is an advantage to a child to be able to communicate clearly with each group. If, for instance, they frequently stay with one grandparent who speaks only French, and another who speaks only English, if they know both languages they are able to communicate and form a deeper bond with each grandparent. Studies also show that bilingual children tend to be able to better focus and control or regulate their behavior, making them less likely to act out and more prone to adjusting well in groups of their peers.
Aptitude for Learning New Concepts
Children who know more than one language have a better capacity for learning new concepts quickly. If they are proficient in two more languages, children have been shown to more easily grasp new ideas in other disciplines such as math and science.
Appreciation of Different Cultures
If a child is speaking more than language, they have the ability to connect with others across multiple cultures in a way that monolinguals do not have. They can observe a different culture directly, rather than just reading about it or being told about it. This could lead to a more inclusive view towards others of any culture, not just those that they are associated with.
In addition to these benefits, when children enter adulthood knowing multiple languages they may have a higher chance of employment in certain industries. Education, government, and healthcare are just some of the industries in greatest need of employees who are able to communicate with others in other languages.
The Bilingual Household
The way in which children become bilingual (trilingual, etc.) can happen one of two ways: either they learn the different languages simultaneously from birth, or they learn them sequentially, one after another. Proficiency in both languages may be quicker, especially initially, with simultaneous language learning. Those who learn one language first and then are thrown in to another may experience a temporary delay in both languages, but with proper support will be able to catch up to their peers.
When learning languages simultaneously at home, many households will have each parent speak primarily in their native tongue to the child. In these cases, the child usually associates one language with each parent, and will communicate with each of them in their corresponding languages. This approach should not be considered the only option for operating a bilingual household, however. If one or both parents are proficient in multiple languages and feel comfortable speaking them to their child, there is no problem with them teaching their child one of their non-native tongues.
It is not recommended that a parent attempt to teach their child a primary language they are not familiar with, without exposing them to any other. This can result in confusion and language delay in the child.
How to Expose Your Child to Multiple Languages Early On
Even if your household does not speak multiple languages, you can still take steps toward raising a multi-lingual child if that is a priority for you. Some ideas include:
- Enrolling your child in a language-immersion daycare or school
- Hiring a babysitter or nanny who is fluent in another language and have them speak that language with your child
- Before and after school foreign language programs
- Video series dedicated to preschool language learning
- Setting up play dates with another family that speaks another language
- Frequent travel to places that speak the target language
Challenges of Raising a Bilingual Child
Despite the clear advantages to raising your child to be proficient in more than one language, there are many challenges you may face:
Initial Mixing of the Multiple Languages
Children are not able to differentiate between different languages initially. To them it is all serving the purpose of communication. It is not uncommon for a multi-lingual child to start a sentence in once language, finish it in the other, or switch off several times along the way. As they mature and are exposed more to each language, they will be able to differentiate between the two. Once we know more than one language, however, we never really shut either language off, and even adults who know multiple languages are tasked with mentally differentiating between them while thinking or communicating.
Favoring one Language Over the Other
Some children go back and forth between favoring one language or the other, while others may naturally become more dominant in the other. Once they are receiving formal education they will most likely favor the dominant language used in that setting. If you want them to remain proficient in other languages, they need consistent exposure and practice while not at school.
Possible Language Delay
It is a myth that bilingual children will experience any kind of permanent language development barrier if all other factors are constant, but some suggest that being brought up bilingual can cause an initial delay in verbal development. Once they do begin speaking, however, they usually catch up to their peers. This delay may result from the high volume of vocabulary the child is exposed to.
Regression Once They Go to School
Kids want to fit in with their peers. If everyone at school is speaking English or some other dominant language, they may see it as “uncool” to speak the other language(s) spoken at home, and may go through a period of refusal to speak more than the dominant language.
Raising bilingual children can have its challenges, but offers many benefits. If your family speaks multiple native languages at home, it could be in your children’s best interest to make an extra effort to teach them those languages.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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daniela on June 19, 2019:
How does being bilingual impact a child’s cognitive and social development? and How can bilingual children be best supported in early childhood?
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Kinga on January 16, 2018:
We were already raising our kids bilingual (English and Polish) ad when we decided to go trilingual, we heard A LOT of objection (that it will "impair their speech", "confuse them" etc). But after only ONE YEAR of Chinese kindergarten, look what happened:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkKupZijK3c So all I can say is don't be discouraged, persevere, and believe in your child :-)