Early bilingual education

Early bilingual education

Bilingualism refers to the ability to use two languages in everyday life. Bilingualism is common and is on the rise in many parts of the world, with perhaps one in three people being bilingual or multilingual. 

Biliteracy is the ability to read and write proficiently in two languages. A biliterate is a person who is proficient in two different languages. Fluency in both reading and writing are present in biliteracy. Usually a biliterate has knowledge and skill to read and write in one's home language and in a second language. 

Biliterate is bilingual but not necessary the other way around. It is not necessary to be literate to be bilingual. We will focus the discussion here on Bilingualism.

Attitudes against early bilingualism are often based on myths and misinterpretations, rather than scientific findings. Here we would like to help answer six most asked questions from parents and try to demonstrate the benefit of opening your home to a Chinese – speaking au pair. 

Please click on the question to get it answered (Reference list can be found here ).

1. Are bilingual children confused?

One misunderstood behavior and evidence for confusion, is when bilingual children mix words from two languages in the same sentence. This is known as code mixing. In fact, code mixing is a normal part of bilingual development, and bilingual children actually have good reasons to code mix (Person, 2008). One reason some children code mix is that it happens frequently in their language communities—children imitate what they hear adults around them do (Comeau, Genesee & Lapaquette, 2003). A second reason is that young bilinguals are sometimes limited in their vocabulary, just like other young monolinguals. Rather than being a sign of confusion, code mixing can be seen as a sign of bilingual children’s ingenuity.

What about bilingual infants? Again, the research is clear: bilingual infants readily distinguish their two languages and show no evidence of confusion. Languages differ on many dimensions. Even if you don’t speak Russian or Mandarin, you can likely tell one from the other. Infants are very sensitive to these perceptual differences, and are particularly attuned to a language’s rhythm. Recent research has shown that 4-month-old monolingual and bilingual infants can discriminate silent talking faces speaking different languages (Weikum et al., 2007). However, by 8 months of age, only bilinguals are still sensitive to the distinction, while monolinguals stop paying attention to subtle variations in facial movements (Sebastián – Galleés, Albareda-Castellot, Weikum, & Werker, 2012); Weikum et al., 2007) Rather than being confused, it seems that bilingual infants are more sensitive at distinguishing their languages.

2. Does bilingualism make children smarter?

One of the most important benefits of early bilingualism is often taken for granted: bilingual children will know multiple languages which is important for daily life, connecting to family culture and history, and making friends from different cultures. However, beyond all these obvious benefits, researchers have investigated whether bilingualism leads to other non-linguistic advantages.

Scientific research has also shown that bilingual children have enhanced social understanding and bilinguals have shown some cognitive advantages such as switching between activities and inhibiting previously learned responses (Akhtar & Menjivar, 2012).     

3. Is it best for each person to speak only one language with a bilingual child?

“One-person-one-language,” a strategy first recommended over 100 years ago (Ronjat, 1913), has been proven false. It is neither necessary nor sufficient for successful bilingual acquisition. There is no evidence that bilingual children are confused by early bilingualism. 

Several other factors have proven to be important to early bilingual development. Among them, quantity and quality. Bilingual children who hear a large amount of a particular language learn more words and grammar in that language ( Hoff et al., 2012; Person & Fernaández, 1994), and show more efficient processing of that language (Conboy & Mills, 2006; Hurtado, Grüter, Marchman & Fernald, 2013; Marchman, Fernald & Hurtado, 2010). High quality language exposure involves social interaction. For example, infants do not readily learn language from television (DeLoache etal., 2010; Kuhl, Tsao & Liu, 2003), and low-quality television viewing in infancy has been linked to smaller vocabulary in bilingual toddlers (Hudon, Fennell & Hoftyzer, 2013). Opportunities to interact with multiple and different speakers has been linked to vocabulary learning in bilingual toddlers (Pace & Hoff, 2010).

These factors can lead some families to consider the one-person-one-language approach, while other families use another approach. Relatively balanced exposure to the two languages is most likely the best way to promote successful acquisition of both of the languages ( Thordardottir, 2011). So the best answer to this question is that parents should use whatever strategy promotes high-quality and high-quantity exposure to their child’s language skills.         

4. Should parents avoid mixing languages together?

Mixing languages together is also known as ‘code mixing’ and is a normal part of being a bilingual and interacting with other bilingual speakers (Poplack, 1980). Studies are beginning to reveal that bilingual children as young as 20-months are able to understand code-mixed sentences, and show similar processing patterns as bilingual adults (Byers-Heinlein, 2013). This would suggest that bilinguals are able to cope with code mixing from an early age. It has also been suggested that while code mixing might make word learning initially difficult, it is possible that practice switching back and forth between the languages leads to cognitive benefits later in life (Byers- Heinlein, 2013).

5. The earlier, the better?

Many parents are convinced about the concept of a ‘critical period’ for language acquisition: the idea that humans are not capable of mastering a new language after reaching a certain age. Researchers disagree about whether a critical period exists at all, and they disagree about when this critical period may occur. Proposals range from age 5 to 15 (Krashen, 1973; John son & Newport, 1989; Lenneber, 1967). However, the majority of them do agree ‘the earlier, the better’. There may not be a sharp turn for the worse at any point in development, but there is an incremental decline in language learning abilities with age (Birdsong & Molis, 2001; Hakuta, Bialystok, Wiley, 2003). 

This point is best understood as an interaction between biological and environmental factors. Young children experience a very rich language environment during the first years of life in most cultures and families. Older children and adults do not usually have the same amount of time to devote to language learning, and they do not usually experience the advantage of fun, constant, one-on-one interaction with native speakers. 

Applied to bilingualism, simultaneous bilinguals (acquiring two languages from birth) do display fairly robust advantages over sequential bilinguals (first language followed by second language). They tend to have better accents, more diversified vocabulary, higher grammatical proficiency, and greater skill in real-time language processing (Lew – Williams & Fernald, 2007, 2010).

However, parents should not lose their hope if they have not exposed their children to each language right from birth. There are many other ways to foster bilingual development. Such as hiring bilingual caretakers for your children or sending your children to language immersion programs in elementary school.

6. Are bilingual children more likely to have language difficulties, delays, or disorders?

Bilingual children are not more likely than monolingual children to have difficulties with language, to show delays in learning, or to be diagnosed with a language disorder (Paradis, Genesee & Crago, 2010; Petitoo & Holowka, 2002). It is the perception of their parents. 

If in the parents believe there is a delay or even disorder in language learning of their children, consult a pediatrician or if possible, a speech-language pathologist with expertise in bilingualism. If we measure bilinguals using a monolingual measure, we are more likely to find false evidence of delay. Fortunately, researchers and clinicians are now developing bilingual-specific measures that paint a more accurate picture of bilinguals’ global language competence.

Research demonstrates that we need to reshape our views of early bilingualism: children are born ready to learn languages of their environments without confusion or delay (Werker & Byers-Heinlein, 2008). At Au Pair Bureau HELDER, we promote bilingualism and multicultural proficiency among our children. .