Language Development of Young Bi- and Multilingual Children: FAQs

By Lorna Caputo

Basic linguistic development is in its own right a complex and much-researched area of study, but when children grow up learning and using a plurality of languages, the cognitive processes are even more intricate and the research can be tricky to navigate. While social media, blogs and mainstream news outlets can be helpful in generating discussion about language learning, for parents and teachers of bi- and multilingual children, I always stress the need to access the research and academic discourse as directly as possible, which is why I use social media spaces so people can openly talk about questions they have about bi- and multilingualism, and where the latest research can be shared. In this post, I am going to address some of the key questions that frequently come up in my discussions with parents and teachers, and to which we often return to in social media discussion and research, I will also present a brief overview of the current research and discourse on the subject. 

How many languages can a young child learn at the same time?

This is a long-standing question that continues to be a topic of discussion in both neurolinguistic (i.e. the study of language and the structure of the brain) and psycholinguistic (i.e. the study of the psychological processes involved in language development) research. Two of the main areas discussed are a) the impact of learning more than one language on the brain, and b) the effect of the specific social and environmental conditions and pressures involved in the acquisition of more than one language; these are both topics of research that are further informed by whether the languages are being learned simultaneously or sequentially. Pettito et al (2001), for example, take on what they identified to be a misconception that the brain cannot handle the cognitive load of learning more than one language at a time; their research instead suggests that the brain is indeed ‘wired’ to process multiple languages simultaneously, and that the increased cognitive burden could enhance the development of executive functioning skills (as reinforced by Bialystok, Craik, Green & Gollan, 2009).

In general, language development greatly depends on the environment in which it is learned, specifically the quality and quantity of the input the child is exposed to. Moreover, the brain is capable of learning several languages at the same time, but the proficiency level of each language is largely contingent on the quality and quantity of the exposure to the languages being learned (Hua & Wei, 2005; Hoff et al, 2012). The exact number of languages a child can learn concurrently will vary from child to child based on their individual motivations, abilities and the input to which he or she is exposed.

Are my bi-lingual or multilingual child’s languages developing normally

Some schools have culturally and linguistically complex populations made up of students who have often vastly different home and educational experiences, sometimes even between siblings. The question is therefore challenging to address, as it requires a comparison to be made to some kind of norm group derived from what is an inherently diverse population in terms of educational, cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Current research states that bilingual children reach most language development milestones at the same time as monolingual children, but there is research that suggests bilingual children may develop speech slightly later than monolingual children (Sorace, 2007) and demonstrate different speech patterns (Hua & Wei, 2005).

In studies that have compared vocabulary levels between bi- and monolingual children, the bilingual children’s vocabularies have been found to be lower than monolinguals in each of their languages, but overall are equal or even higher when all languages are combined, results theorised to be a natural result of learning some words in one language and other words in the other language(s) (Bialystok et al, 2009). Bi- and multilingual children can also have special characteristics, such as ‘language mixing’ and ‘language play’, that are different from monolingual children (De Zarobe & De Zarobe, 2015). Even though bi- and multilingual children’s linguistic development is complex, there are indicators that can help distinguish if any challenges they are experiencing are normal given their circumstances (Wei, Miller, Dodd & Hua, 2005). If you have any concerns about your child’s language development, we would recommend that you speak to your child’s teachers or clinician.

If my child’s home language is different from the school language, why is it important for my child to continue to learn his or her home language?

There is much research dedicated to identifying the various effects of being educated in a ‘new’ language, and, in parallel, the cognitive, social and employability benefits of continuing the development of strong first language skills in the meantime in order to avoid linguistic attrition.(Cummins, 1976; Toukomaa & Skutnabb-Kangas, 1977; Baker, 2011; Iluz-Cohen & Armon-Lotem, 2013; Jensen de Lopéz & Baker, 2015; De Angelis, 2015). I would advise we should emphasise the need for consistent exposure to high quality linguistic input in the students’ other language(s) as a means of enhancing their overall personal and academic development.

How can I support my child develop his or her languages?

There are many advantages to developing balanced bi- and multilingualism. Young multilingual children usually enjoy developing their home language(s) because it connects them with friends and family who share the language(s). Very young simultaneous bilingual children (children who have developed two languages since birth) particularly benefit from the cognitive advantages of balanced bilingual development. Young bi- and multilingual children are susceptible to subtractive bilingualism, particularly due to attitudes towards delaying or not developing literacy in the first language, or by an increased focus in the home on developing the school language of instruction.

Some bi- and multilingual children arriving at the school in the primary years have already developed literacy skills in their first language. These children benefit from first language maintenance, particularly if families intend on returning the child to home educational systems. They benefit from additive bilingualism that has a focus on developing balanced bilingualism, and they are also at risk of subtractive bilingualism if the first language is neglected and replaced by a focus on the language of instruction at school.

What you can do:

–     Have your child attend a first language class, which will help him or her develop a deeper and broader vocabulary as well as refine their grammatical knowledge. At the same time, they will also make friends with other speakers of that language, and use their first language in an authentic way. It is especially important that your child develops academic first language skills if you intend for your child to have education in their first language in the future.

–     Provide your child with opportunities to be exposed to rich language (vocabulary, song, rhyme, word play, etc.) in a variety of contexts (home, museums, trips, experiences, etc.).

–     Expose your child to TV, films, books and pop music in their first language.

–     Make regular play dates or participate in activities where the first language will be used.

–     Use nannies and au pairs that are proficient speakers of your child’s languages, especially if they are the main carer.

–     Ask your friends and family members to use one language consistently with your child, so the child knows which language to speak with different people.

–     Be aware that if you are not a native speaker of your child’s first language and you choose to speak that language at home, your child may not be exposed to the cultural richness of the language that native speakers acquire and use (idiomatic expressions, cultural references and pronunciation, for example).  (Caputo & Martin, 2016).

References

Baker, C. (2011). Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. UK: Multilingual Matters.

Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I., Green, D. W., & Gollan, T. H. (2009). Bilingual minds. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 10(3), 89-129.

Caputo, L., & Martin, J. (2016, February 4). The Benefits of First Language Development. Retrieved January 22, 2017, from https://www.iszl.ch/cf_news/view.cfm?newsid=1109

Cummins, J. (1976). The influence of bilingualism on cognitive growth: a synthesis of research findings and explanatory hypotheses. Working Papers on Bilingualism, No. 9.

De Angelis, G. D. (2015). English L3 learning in a multilingual context: The role of parental education and L2 exposure within the living community. International Journal of Multilingualism, 12(4), 435-452.

De Zarobe, L. R., & DeZarobe, Y. R. (2015). New perspectives on multilingualism and L2 acquisition: An introduction. International Journal of Multilingualism, 12(4), 393-403.

Hoff, E., Core, C., Place, S., Rumiche, R., Señor, M., & Parra, M. (2012). Dual language exposure and early bilingual development. Journal of Child Language, 39(01), 1-27.

Hua, Z. & Wei, L. (2005). Bi- and Multilingual Acquisition. In Clinical Sociolinguistics (pp. 193-206). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Iluz-Cohen, P., & Armon-Lotem, S. (2013). Language proficiency and executive control            in bilingual children. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 16(04), 884-899.

Jensen de López, K. M., & Baker, A. E. (2015). Executive Functions in the assessment of        bilingual children with language impairment. In Multilingualism and Language impairment: Methodological issues (pp. 275-299). Channel View Publications.

Petitto, L.A., Katerelos, M., Levy, B.G., Gauna, K., Tetreault, K. and Ferraro, V. (2001). Bilingual signed and spoken language acquisition from birth: implications for the mechanism underlying early bilingual language acquisition. Journal of Child Language      28, 453-496.

Sorace, A. (2007). The more, the merrier: facts and beliefs about the bilingual mind. In Tall Tales about the Mind and the Brain: Separating Fact from Fiction, (pp.193-203).

Toukomaa, P. & Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (1977). The Intensive Teaching of the Mother Tongue to Migrant Children at Pre-School Age (Research Report No. 26). Department of Sociology and Social Psychology, University of Tampere.

Wei, L., Miller, N., Dodd, B., & Hua, Z. (2005). Childhood Bilingualism. In Clinical Sociolinguistics (pp. 193-206). Malden , MA: Blackwell Publishing.