With more and more children being born into bilingual families, one of the most common concerns parents of infants and young children have is whether speaking more than one language in the home will confuse their child.
- Will speaking two languages around your child slow down or inhibit your child’s ability to learn to speak and understand language?
- Should you only speak one language around your child and teach the second later?
These are good questions.
The Amazing, Powerful, Wonderful Mind of a Child
The brain of a child is a fantastic thing. From birth, children have to learn so many things that we take for granted. We watch as our children discover their fingers and toes, learn how to grasp objects, and develop the ability to roll over or crawl. As adults, these may seem like basic things. However, they actually require developing multiple skills and perceptions from scratch. Then they have to figure out how to put them all to use at the same time. The young, amazing brain does all this and so much more.
Similarly, language is a highly complex skill. There are sounds, words, grammar, and tone. Babies decipher all this on their own by listening. So, when parents speak different languages with different sounds, words, and rules, how will their child learn what fits with which language?
Learning Different Words
Before the 7th and 8th centuries, many western languages were written without spaces or punctuation. Like the heading of this paragraph (“Learning Different Words”), it could be challenging to read and understand where one word stopped and the next started. This is similar to what a baby has to deal with when listening to someone speak.
When we speak, especially in our native language, there are no distinct pauses between words in a sentence. To a baby who doesn’t know words, it all sounds like one long string of sounds. Over time, however, babies start to instinctively discover the rules of the language that help to cue them into when one word stops and the next start. This is one of the first linguistic skills they learn.
For example, words in English have one stressed syllable, which is often at the beginning of the word. So, you can guess where a new word starts pretty accurately just by listening for sounds that are stressed. Other languages, however, like French, do not have the same general rule.
Does Speaking Two Languages Confuse Your Baby?
A recent study at McGill University asked this very question. Researches used tests that can show if a baby can distinguish where words start and end and tested babies from both monolingual and bilingual homes. They tested the following three situations:
- English-only homes
- French-only homes
- Bilingual homes
They found that babies in the bilingual homes performed as well or better that babies from monolingual homes at distinguishing words.
“As we expected, the French-only and English-only babies could track word forms in their native language, but not in the other language. Impressively, bilingual babies were on par with their monolingual peers in tracking word forms in both English and French at the same ages, even though the languages differ significantly. Further, bilingual babies who heard both languages spoken by the same parent appeared to do better at the task.” – Adriel John Orena and Linda Polka
It used to be assumed that introducing a second language too early in a child’s life would hurt their development. However, as researchers continue to study the effects of multiple languages on young children, they are finding the opposite is actually true. Not only are children able to handle more than one language, but there are multiple cognitive, linguistic, and academic benefits to raising a child in a bilingual home.