May is Better Speech and Hearing month. This presents an opportunity for communication health professionals to increase public awareness about communication health in general, as well as the impact of communication impairments, and the importance of detection and intervention. It is also a perfect opportunity to talk about commonly held misconceptions related to communication development.
Have you ever heard someone tell you that teaching a child multiple languages can “confuse” them? Or that using two languages with your child can cause a language delay?
Sadly, there are many misunderstandings when it comes to bilingual or multilingual language development in children. Many people think multiple language learning can have a negative impact on a child’s communication development overall. Well, I am here to tell you otherwise!
First, I’d like to clarify what I mean when I talk about “multilingual language development.” Well, it’s exactly as it sounds—it refers children learning more than one language. Families may go about this in many different ways. Some families use two languages from birth or the or the very early years and children grow up learning two languages at the same time. We call this simultaneous acquisition. Some families use one language at home, and their child will learn the second language after their first language is well established, often coinciding with the start of daycare/preschool or kindergarten. We call this sequential acquisition, and it is common for families who have immigrated from a country where there is a different dominant language. When a family speaks one language in the home different from the dominant language spoken in the community, we call the home language their heritage language.
An increasingly multilingual community gives us an opportunity to talk about myths and misconceptions surrounding multilingual language acquisition.
Myth: Learning two or more languages is too confusing for young children. It is better to speak only English with them even if you are not fluent because that is what they will end up using at school and in the community anyways.
Fact: Children all over the world learn multiple languages without getting “confused”. It is best to use the language(s) you are most comfortable speaking and understanding so that you are better able to provide high-quality language input for your child.
Speaking the language you are most comfortable using generally means using the language in which you are a fluent speaker. For those fluent in more than one language, this might mean using multiple languages with their children from birth, and their children will grow up as simultaneous language learners. For those fluent in only one language, this may mean speaking a heritage language in the home, and their children can be a sequential language learner. Remember, both learning styles are wonderful and neither is better than the other!
Instead, it is better to focus on providing your child with good language input and high quality interactions/conversations, no matter what language you use. This will have the most positive impact on their communication development. I believe this would be very difficult to do using a language in which you are not comfortable speaking or understanding. When we speak in a fluent language, we are more likely to use a larger vocabulary, correct grammar, and more varied sentence structures. We are likely to communicate more in general. All of these things have a positive impact on our children’s communication development. Furthermore, when we engage in conversations using our fluent language, we are better able to provide feedback, build on what our children are saying, and correct our children’s grammar misuses in a natural way.
Myth: Learning two languages will cause a communication delay.
Fact: While there are sometimes minor differences in language learning for multilingual children, learning two languages itself does NOT cause a language delay. There are many cognitive benefits to learning multiple languages!
Overall, bilingual children meet their communication milestones within the same expected range as monolingual children. They start using their first words around the same time as monolingual children, and develop their grammar in a similar way and around the same timelines as well. Research has shown that children who know more than one language have an improved ability to learn new words and even more languages. They are shown to be more skilled at problem solving, and have an improved ability to manage their attention.
It should be noted, though, that there are some minor but noticeable differences in the patterns of typical language learning for multilingual children. It is common for these children to mix up grammar rules, or to use words from both languages in the same sentence. We call this code switching. It is actually a typical part of bilingual language learning and is not a sign of a language delay or “confusion.” Code switching will decrease over time, and children will eventually stop as they become more experienced in both languages.
Myth: Children who don’t speak English when they first enter school will struggle in the classroom and won’t be able to “catch up” to their peers.
Fact: Sequential language learning is a common way for children to learn multiple languages. If they are not experiencing any delays in their heritage language, children are expected to “catch up” to their peers and become fluent in their second language.
If there is a language delay in the heritage language, we expect to see some delays in the second language as well. But, if language skills are within the expected range for their heritage language, children should “catch up” to the language level of their peers after a period of time. One thing that might occur for these language learners is a “silent period” lasting several months when they first start learning their new language. During this period, they may not speak as much as they usually do. While it may feel concerning, it is typical of sequential language learners, and it should resolve. As well, a sequential language learner may use incorrect grammar and short sentences initially. While perhaps not typical for their age if they were monolingual, it is typical for a child who is learning a second language. Some mistakes will be due to the influence of their first language, but many mistakes will follow a similar pattern of development as monolingual children at a similar stage of language learning. As a child has more experience speaking and listening in their second language, they will become more fluent and their errors will decrease.
Myth: If your child is learning multiple languages and they have a developmental, cognitive, or communication delay, you should stop using your heritage language and just focus on English.
Fact: All children, including those with developmental, cognitive, or communication delays, are capable of learning multiple languages. Many children with delays have learned a second language successfully!
So remember, any child can learn multiple languages, and can do so without harming their communication or cognitive development. In fact, it’s quite the opposite! What is most important is ensuring your child receives good language models and high quality interactions in whatever language(s) you choose.