by Rupa Raman
Zoe loves candy, Clifford the Big Red Dog, and splashing in the pool like any 4-year old. But unlike many children her age, Zoe speaks three languages and is learning to read and write in them too.
Bilingualism gives children like Zoe an edge over their monolingual peers in various areas of learning and development, including higher reading scores and enhanced problem-solving skills.
Barbara Zurer Pearson, Ph.D., adjunct assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts and author of Raising a Bilingual Child—A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents, has spent over 20 years researching bilingualism. She confirms the findings of linguistic researchers and various studies across the world: children who learn more than one language early on and use them actively enjoy several advantages throughout their life.
Here are five of the expanded capabilities and benefits associated with early bilingualism.
1. Linguistic and cognitive skills: Bilinguals make effective communicators. If your child knows more than one language, she is more aware of language. Every time she communicates, she makes a choice—conscious or subconscious—between the languages. This constant awareness enhances bilingual children’s ability to make connections between letters and sounds.
A better understanding of languages and how they work may be what makes bilinguals effective writers and communicators, according to Dr. Pearson. Educational background and other socio-economic conditions being equal, children learning two or more languages are likely to display better reading scores in both languages than their peers learning one language.
2. Selective attention: Bilinguals exercise sharper focus and clearer thinking. Bilingual kids’ constant exposure to two or more languages and the opportunity and ability to juggle them helps them focus.
Ellen Bialystok, Ph.D., who holds the title of distinguished research professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, has been studying the effect of bilingualism on children’s language and cognitive development for over 20 years. Her studies show that bilinguals seem to be able to tune in and out of various aspects of a task, focusing on one while suppressing another. This skill enables bilinguals to act swiftly, accurately, and calmly in intense situations.
A common example is that of a pilot knowing which signals to focus on and which controls to use at a precise moment. This need and ability to remain alert all the time is believed to help delay the onset of dementia. Dr. Bialystok found that lifelong bilingualism helped postpone the onset of dementia by a few years.
3. Divergent thinking: Bilingual kids are likely to be highly creative. Children who learn a second language excel at coming up with multiple uses for an object or multiple ways to solve a given problem. This translates to more refined, scientific, or creative problem-solving abilities later on.
4. Social learning: Bilingual kids enjoy a wider world view. Take Zoe, for instance. She has been learning English, French, and Slovak since she was born. Naturally, she knows a little about the different cultures and countries in which the languages originated. Her parents have friends who speak these languages. Zoe’s family visits other countries on vacation and often has multilingual guests over to her home.
When interacting with people, Zoe is less likely to make judgments based on social or ethnic stereotypes and is more likely to form healthy relationships with people based on their individual personalities. At age 4, Zoe is already on her way to becoming a true, global citizen—more tolerant and open-minded.
“Knowing more than one language helps children understand and embrace diversity in their community and prepares them to communicate with a much broader range of people they may encounter. Easy bilingual skills are likely to make them more employable, tolerant, interesting adults,” says Karen Nemeth, Ed.M., in an interview with Parent USA City. Nemeth teaches at Bucks County Community College in Newtown, Pennsylvania, and is the author of Many Languages, One Classroom: Teaching Dual and English Language Learners.
Dr. Pearson agrees that it is this social aspect of multilingualism that is most important and relevant to our current world. “Speaking the same language is a powerful bond between people, even those that are in different cultural groups,” she tells Parent USA City.
5. Language preservation: Bilingual kids keep endangered languages alive. Of the approximately 6,000 known world languages, linguistic researchers like Michael E. Krauss estimate that only 60-80% will survive this century. Teaching your kids their mother tongue or helping them learn a second language is the most effective way to transmit languages to future generations.
Challenges of raising bilingual children
As bilingualism’s benefits become evident, parents in many monolingual families make the effort to introduce their children to a second language early on. This includes hiring a caregiver who speaks a foreign language, choosing a pre-school that promotes education in multi-lingual and multi-cultural settings, and enrolling older children in after-school foreign language classes.
In families where either or both parents are already bilingual, it may seem that the child will naturally be exposed to a second language by birth. However, parents trying to raise bilingual kids face many challenges.
It is not unusual for children in bilingual families to grow up learning only the dominant language of their surroundings, causing the native language and culture to gradually, but eventually fade away. This is especially common in the case of immigrant families settling in a predominantly English-speaking country
Not too long ago, bilingual parents were told that introducing a child to two languages might confuse him, delaying speech development and language learning. Karen Nemeth dismisses this notion. She has been working in the field of language acquisition for over 30 years.
“Over the years, the research evidence about the advantages of helping children grow up bilingual from an early age has grown and grown,” says Nemeth. “The few concerns that have been raised from time to time about confusing children or slowing them down have been easily refuted and overcome.”
Nemeth says that experts working in the field of early bilingual learning are confident that the brain is prepared to learn more than one language and to learn in more than one language. “But, that learning has to be as close to the natural/normal language learning as possible to meet the needs of the developing brain.”
Different strategies for success
However, the second language often has to compete with the first or dominant language in the child’s environment and does not always emerge successful. Maintaining a healthy balance is the bigger challenge for parents. Bilingual experts recommend several strategies to help parents ease and cement the transition.
The One Parent One Child (OPOL) method has been popular for a while. Fran Walfish, Psy.D., an author and child, parent and family psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, California, is a supporter. She recommends that each person (Mommy, Daddy, Nanny) relating to the child choose one language and only use that language with the child.
Dr. Walfish believes that not following this method tends to confuse kids who are trying to express themselves verbally. “Language development in young children is a very complicated neurologically based system. It is best to help the child organize language receptively (comprehension) and expressively (talking) by sticking to one language per person,” she adds.
Not everyone agrees. Although the OPOL method is effective, some linguists believe it may not be the best strategy for all families.
Alternative strategies that Dr. Pearson and others recommend include Minority Language at Home (mL@H—everyone always speaks the minority language at home even if it is not the native language of both parents) and Time and Place (using a particular language based on location and/or time—such as English at school, French at home; Spanish until noon, English in the evening).
It's not merely enough if your child learns a language. It's important to ensure that she has opportunities to communicate in that language frequently, either with members of the extended family and friends or by means of a dual-immersion school program, where two or more languages are used to teach regular subjects, each language being used for part of the day.
The case for bilingualism is clear. Parents whose child rearing styls ensure that their child learns more than one language are giving their child a great gift. So no matter what strategy you decide to adopt, the road to bilingualism begins with a simple question: Moms and dads, how many languages does your baby hear on a daily basis? (Besides baby talk, of course!)
Rupa Raman writes on intentional parenting, holistic living, travel, and other topics. She has published articles for the United Way and contributes to ModernMom.com, EverythingMom.com, Travels.com, KidandParent.in and several other websites. Visit her blog on reading to kids at babylovesbooks.com.