Many children today grow up exposed to at least two languages from an early age. This leads parents, educators, and teachers to ask themselves many questions about the benefits, but also the disadvantages, of exposing a young child to bilingualism. Moreover, many ask themselves how to best support the acquisition of a dual language.
Living abroad and working with many families from different nationalities, I have received many requests for advice that, above all, are the expression of the confusion that this topic creates in adults.
So I would like to try, drawing from scientific research and my personal experience, to clarify these doubts and answer some questions.
BILINGUALISM and CHILDREN
CAN BILINGUALISM LEAD A CHILD TO CONFUSION?
This is perhaps the most common question I receive. This stems from the fact that we often hear children use words from different languages together in the same sentence. But this is not an indication of confusion. It is known in the jargon as “mix code“, and can occur for a number of reasons. For example, by imitation of adults when they, too, tend to use words of different languages in the same sentence. But also, this can happen because children do not have an extensive vocabulary and tend to use all the resources they know, even from different languages.
CAN BILINGUAL CHILDREN HAVE LANGUAGE DELAYS OR DISORDERS?
Bilingual children are not more likely than monolingual children to have difficulty with language, or exhibiting learning delays, or being diagnosed with a language disorder. There may be, “sometimes”, a short delay in the pronunciation of the first words, but it is only in the initial phase because the lag is recovered in a short time. Actually, some studies have shown that children with specific language disorders, Down syndrome, and autism spectrum disorders are not more likely to experience further delays or challenges than monolingual children with the same problems.
WHAT STRATEGY IS BEST TO USE TO HELP CHILDREN?
The best strategy is to expose the child to sentences in both languages, in high volume, and of high quality. This effort should be carried on both within the family environment, hence at the level of parents and siblings, within the school environment, and the society in which the child lives. A family may prefer to use one language for each parent, as well as using both languages for both parents. Or it might decide to use one language at home, and one outside of it. Or again, it might choose to insist on the language that is least used by the child. There is no one right strategy for every situation, but, as always, you have to consider the environment that surrounds your children, the different exposure they have to the two languages, and, last but not least, which strategy the parents are most comfortable with.
Music, songs, especially those associated with gestures, are tools that can help children in the use and assimilation of the two languages.
Children are born with a mind that is ready to learn a new language, without particular problems or negative consequences. The brain of infants and children is very plastic and has no difficulty in handling two languages.
A language, whatever it is, is a window to the world. And giving the child a chance to choose the window through which he can look out to life is, in my opinion, one of the greatest opportunities that a child can have.