The number of people living in United States who speaks other languages besides English is increasing. According to The Annie E. Casey Foundation, the number of bilingual children in United States in 2016 is 22% and is rising (2018). As the population becomes more diverse, debates over bilingualism also increases. Many researches have linked bilingualism to increased mental flexibility, concentration, focus and other cognitive functions. In addition, competence in multiple languages has provided a lot of people with access to job opportunities increased cultural competence and overall enrichment of day to day life.
Despite all the support from experts, many still have lingering questions of the benefits of bilingualism and whether it should be encouraged at home and school or not. Some parents may elect to not teach their kids their native language to protect them from negative experiences they may have suffered. While other parents strongly believe in teaching their kids for cultural reasons. To shed some light in this matter, I have provided some information that may help parents navigate through unique challenges they may face when raising a child in a bilingual home. This paper addresses three different themes in bilingualism: a.) impact on cognitive development, b.) importance of conversations and language use and c.) parent-educator gap.
Impact on your Developing Child
There has been growing evidence on the benefits of bilingualism in cognition. Raising a child in a bilingual environment provides them with unique opportunities and experiences. Children who can speak multiple language is believed to have enhanced cognitive function because they are actively engaged in their cognitive systems. A review conducted by Stein and colleagues (2014) showed the learning of a second language may induce changes in neural networks involved in language processing (as cited on Marini et.al., 2019). For example, during conversations they are constantly switching between languages and can process information in the same rate or better than those who speaks only one language. This mental capacity and flexibility is a function of cognition. Fecher and Johnson describe that bilingual infants differ in how they differentiate speech sounds and learn words (2018).
But a question remained in their minds, “Do bilingual babies have enhanced perception of non-linguistic of speech?” To examine this inquisition, they led a study and tested forty-eight monolingual and bilingual, healthy full term 8.5 to 9.5 months old babies that reside in the Greater Toronto Area. Twenty-four of the infants were only exposed to English and the remaining twenty-four heard English half of the time as well as another language in their homes. These infants were tested using a version of the “switch habituation paradigm”. They administered auditory stimuli consisted of 40 unrelated sentences in Spanish. The switch paradigm is when infant is presented and exposed repeatedly to a novel face-voice pairing (e.g. face A and voice A, and face B and voice B) until the baby got bored. Once the infant lost interest, they again presented them with the same stimuli however, one stimulus differs in a way that the voice and the face does not match (e.g. face A and voice B and vice versa).
Based on the on infant’s looking time and reactions, the researchers were able to assess if the babies can associate voices with existing faces and whether they can discriminate the voices. The results of the study indicated that infants who did not have any exposure to other languages apart from English, was not able to successfully recognize the talker in an unfamiliar language, whereas, infants growing up in bilingual homes succeeded at foreign-language talker recognition. This could be because infants exposed to a different language may have a heightened sensitivity to pitch and acoustic differences. It could also mean that early exposure to bilingualism enhances perceptual attentiveness (Fecher & Johnson, 2018). This study shows that early exposure of children to different languages has advantages. Exposure to foreign language contributes to processing and identifying different aspects of speech thus linking bilingualism to cognitive, language and social development of a child.
Importance of Conversation and Language Use
Maybe you have decided to incorporate your native language in your kid’s repertoire. The question now is, how? Talking to children in your native language is one way of teaching. However, this does not guarantee that they will learn to speak it. In United States, large number of Spanish-English bilingual children has tendencies to switch to English when talked to in Spanish than vice versa. Additionally, Spanish-English children at home are also more likely to switch to English when addressed in Spanish by their parents conversely (as cited on Ribot et.al., 2018).
Researchers Krystal M. Ribot, Erika Hoff and Andrea Burridge (2018) conducted a research regarding the contribution of language use to expressive language growth. They studied forty-seven 30-month old Spanish-English bilingual children, both girls and boys and assessed their expressive vocabularies and receptive language skills across three sessions around the ages of 30, 36 and 42 months. At least one parent or caregiver of the children were born in a Spanish-speaking country. To acquire information of the children’s dual language exposure and language use, the parents or caregivers were interviewed during the first session. Various instruments and measures were administered to children in the second and third session to measure language skills.
Measures included language exposure (input) and use (output) and growth specifically expressive vocabulary and receptive language skill. Each measure was obtained at each age with the use of various assessments comprised of picture books, toys, and auditory tools. Results indicate that language growth of English skill and development of expressive language skills is related to the number of English words children heard and use of the language itself. Furthermore, they also found that the age of the child has significant effect in the growth of expressive vocabulary but does not have a significant influence in development of receptive skills.
Children who heard and spoke more English had higher English scores and showed faster rate of increases in expressive vocabulary. However, children who had lower exposure to English improved in a much slower rate. Regarding parent-reported patterns of children’s language choices in conversation, the researchers discovered two groups of Spanish-English bilingual children: a group who generated more English than they heard and a group who had less English than they heard.
Overall, the result indicates that hearing and using the language, in this case English and Spanish, have significant benefits to bilingual language development of a child. So, what does this mean for you? For your child to learn a language, whether you are teaching your native language or English, it is important that children not only hear the words, they also must speak it. Asking your child to reply with the language you are teaching helps transfer the skills in their memory for later retrieval. Practicing it also helps with their verbal development.
Now that one advantage of bilingualism and the importance of language use in dual language skill acquisition has been addressed, let’s touch on some of the ongoing issues parents and educators currently face in fostering language development of bilingual children. Toddler years are critical time for building strong foundational skills. Parents and educators play an important role in successful language development of children. Sawyer et.al (2017) elaborated on the importance of gaining knowledge and understanding of processes involved in second language acquisition and language practices. The beliefs and misconceptions of both the teachers and parents on bilingualism have significant impact on children.
Sawyer and colleagues wanted to address these misconceptions and barriers and provide insight on what could be done to improve parent-teacher collaboration. Fourteen Latino Spanish-speaking parents of thirteen preschool-age children and seventeen early childhood teachers were individually interviewed and recruited to participate in a focus group. They were each asked a question about their beliefs about how children learn a second language, their role in supporting language development and ways in which both parties can collaborate to support the children’s language development. Parents were also queried about their goals for their children learning Spanish and English.
Few different themes emerged from the session. In terms of belief about language development, majority of parents and teachers share similar beliefs about the need to be further educated about the processes involved in language acquisition. Teachers had more simplistic views and misconceptions, and difficulty understanding the typical language development of bilingual children versus children with language impairment. The value of language is unique to parents of bilingual children. Kim and coworkers expressed that parents of bilingual children noticed resistance from their children to using their home language as soon as they have been regularly exposed to English. This rejection to continuous use of their home language aligns with the trend and the elevated status of English in the US (as cited on Sawyer et.al, 2017).
This is a very challenging situation for parents of dual language learners. This is important for educators to know to have a better understanding of what parents go through and offer their encouragement and support to them. Positive parent-teacher relationship was one common and important theme that emerged from this study. A few of the participants, both parents and teachers, expressed that they are uncertain with what their role would be in collaborating. More parents than teachers suggested ideas based on their knowledge of language such as translating and providing keywords and that this knowledge could be of value to teachers. However, they are still uncertain on how to put this value into practice (Sawyer et.al, 2017).
Based on this research, there is discrepancy and power imbalance between parents and teachers. The teachers provided ideas but are likely focused inside the classroom and the parents’ involvement in education is through home-based activities. Sawyer et.al suggest that teachers and administration would profit from additional professional development that is centered in finding the best means to collaborate with families according to their own personal experiences, attributes, resources and knowledge to potentially bridge the gap that exists in the implementation of linguistically and culturally receptive instructions (2017).
There is strong support from many experts about the mental, social, and cultural benefits of teaching children multiple languages. Even with the growing body of evidence of the benefits of bilingualism, there are those who are still resistant to its value in the community. Parents and caregivers of bilingual children have responsibilities and challengers that are unique only to them. There are sensitive periods in a child’s development where a child can learn a skill efficiently. Language development falls in this period. If this window is missed, the child’s learning efficiency decreases as time passes.
This is imperative for both parents and educators to know because they play a pivotal role in the child’s development. They must acquire basic knowledge of the cultural influence and practices involved in dual language acquisition. Parents of bilingual children and preschool educators must work together in building a strong and positive relationship in order to fully support the development of children. They also should encourage and support each other in terms of promoting second language acquisition and maintenance. The most important of all is educating themselves about the responsibilities they each hold and the barriers they may face. This basic knowledge and understanding and awareness of the importance and benefits of bilingualism will help alleviate some of the tension and confusion they may have.
- Fecher, N., & Johnson, E. K. (2019). Bilingual infants excel at foreign‐language talker recognition. Developmental Science, 22(4), e12778-n/a. doi:10.1111/desc.12778
- Marini, A., Eliseeva, N., & Fabbro, F. (2019). Impact of early second-language acquisition on the development of first language and verbal short-term and working memory. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 22(2), 165-176. doi:10.1080/13670050.2016.1238865
- Ribot, K. M., Hoff, E., & Burridge, A. (2018). Language use contributes to expressive language growth: Evidence from bilingual children. Child Development, 89(3), 929-940. doi:10.1111/cdev.12770
- Sawyer, B. E., Manz, P. H., & Martin, K. A. (2017). Supporting preschool dual language learners: Parents’ and teachers’ beliefs about language development and collaboration. Early Child Development and Care, 187(3-4), 707-726. doi:10.1080/03004430.2016.1163548
- The Number of Bilingual Kids in America Continues to Rise: KIDS COUNT Data Center. (2018, January 11). Retrieved January 17, 2020, from https://datacenter.kidscount.org/updates/show/184-the-number-of-bilingual-kids-in-america-continues-to-rise