Small Children, Languages and Myths

Our children are growing up bilingual in the French part of Canada ? Québec. "That's fine", says everyone. "Even though they'll probably start speaking later because they're learning two languages at once, they'll catch up."

Well actually, this well-entrenched idea that bilingual children are slower to acquire language, is actually a myth!

We were surprised and delighted to learn that research is finding that bilingual children do NOT acquire language later than monolingual children. Our first child participated in a language study on babies carried out at McGill University of Montréal, Québec, Canada. There it was explained to us that research is finding that the difference in language acquisition of one child compared to another is very large. Some children speak sooner, some speak later. And the range of language acquisition of bilingual children is just as large as the range for monolingual children, statistically speaking.

Although these research results are relatively recent, I was able to find an article on the internet about it, written by Professor Fred Genesee of McGill University at http://www.earlychildhood.com/Articles/index.cfm?FuseAction=Article&A=38, confirming what we had been told verbally. In addition, instead of seeing bilingualism as the minority exception to the rule, Professor Genesee suggests that there many be as many children growing up bilingually as there are growing up monolingually.

So rest assured that the myths are wrong and the following are true:

Bilingual children do NOT have delayed language acquisition. Learning more than one language at a time is NOT difficult for small children.

Bilingual children DO master both languages just as well as one.

More and more parents are convinced of the benefits of exposing their small children to foreign languages. This has resulted in the recent explosion of videos, books, music and computer software aimed at babies and preschoolers, that expose them to another language. For example, free computer games on the http://www.kiddiesgames.com website allow babies and preschoolers from an English-speaking environment to learn and practice French and Spanish.

The most obvious benefit, and one that is confirmed by research, is that exposing infants to a foreign language can help them master that foreign language later on. In the well-documented but very accessible book on baby brain development "What's Going On In There?", the author Lise Eliot explains that babies are born being able to hear the sounds of every language in the world. However, this ability is subject to the "use it or lose it" phenomenon. If the baby is not exposed to foreign sounds, she will lose the ability to distinguish those sounds. For example, on page 368, she reports:

«Infants' ability to discriminate foreign speech sounds begins to wane as early as six months of age. By this age, English-learning babies have already lost some of their ability, still present at four months, to discriminate certain German or Swedish vowels. Foreign vowels are the first sort of phoneme to go. Then, by ten or twelve months, out goes the ability to discriminate foreign consonants, like /r/'s and /l/'s for Japanese babies or Hindi consonants for English-learning infants.»

Another benefit of exposing children to another language that is starting to be recognized, is that of increasing their proficiency in their primary language. It may be that the brain exercise of sorting out multiple languages gives that brain a deeper proficiency in language and grammar overall.

So the next time your infant has the opportunity to be exposed to a foreign language in a suitably fun setting (which is how all activities should be presented to infants, isn't it?), then jump at the chance!

The author of this article, Emma Rath, produces free online and purchasable download baby and preschooler software, available at http://www.kiddiesgames.com.

In The News:

How Children Evolved to Whine  The New York Times
Open-access parenting programme shows promise  University of Cape Town News

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