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Bilingualism refers to the ability to use two languages in everyday life. In our multilingual society, it is not uncommon for children to grow up in an environment where they are exposed to more than one language in their daily lives. Some children may be exposed to more than one language at an early age and develop into bilingual speakers as they age.

Benefits of Bilingualism

  • Cognitive development

Bilingual children switch between two different language systems for communication in their daily lives. This stimulates their brain resulting in a more active and flexible brain. Research has shown that bilingual children when compared to their monolingual peers have an easier time in:

    • Understanding math concepts and solving word problems (Zelasko & Antunez, 2000)
    • Developing strong thinking skills to plan and solve complex problems (Pandey, 2013)
    • Using logic or thinking creatively (Bialystok, 2001)
    • Focusing attention on relevant information and ignoring distractions (Castro, Ayankoya & Kasprzak, 2011)
    • Thinking about language and learning other languages (Castro, Ayankoya & Kasprzak, 2011)
  • Social-emotional development

In our multicultural society, bilingualism helps a child to maintain strong ties with their family, culture and community. All of these environments shape a child’s identity and are key parts in developing socially and emotionally. Being bilingual also helps children to make new friends and form stronger relationships using both languages which is key in our diverse society. According to Kovács and Mehler (2009), babies raised in bilingual households show better self-control which is a key indicator of school success in the future.

  • Learning in schools

School readiness and success for bilingual children is tied directly to mastery of their first language (Zelasko & Antunez, 2000). There are academic benefits for bilingual children due to their knowledge of more than one language. Bilingual children are able to think more creatively or develop more flexible approaches in problem solving.  The ability to read and think in two languages promotes higher levels or abstract thinking which is important in learning (Diaz, 1985).

How do children learn more than one language?

There are two main ways for bilingual acquisition in children:

Simultaneous Acquisition occurs when a child is raised bilingually from birth, or when the second language is introduced before the age of three (Paradis, Genesee & Crago, 2011). The developmental stages for language acquisition do not differ between monolingual children and bilingual children who learn two languages simultaneously. Even though bilingual children may start talking slightly later compared to their monolingual peers, bilingual children still begin talking within their communicative milestones. (Meisel, 2004). Bilingual children learn to acquire both languages early on in their language development (Paradis, Genesee & Crago, 2011). At an early age, they are able to differentiate between their two languages and show the ability to switch between languages according to their conversation partner (e.g. speak Mandarin to a Mandarin speaking parent, then switch to English with an English speaking parent) (Genesee & Nicoladis, 2006).

Sequential Acquisition occurs when a second language is introduced after the first language is well-established (generally after the age of three) (Paradis, Genesee & Crago, 2011). Bilingual children may develop their languages through sequential acquisition if they happen to move to a different country where a different language is spoken. This may also happen if a child exclusively speaks or is only exposed to his mother tongue at home until he begins school, where a different language may be used.

A child who learns his second language through sequential acquisition generally develops in the following way (Paradis, Genesee & Crago, 2011):

  • Silent Period. A child may continue to use his home language for a period of time before they begin to attempt to use their second language. The “Silent Period” is a phase that a child might go through when he is first exposed to a second language.  A child may continue to use their home language as they find that they are better able to express themselves while being exposed to a second language at the same time. A child may appear to not be talking in a particular environment such as school where instructions may be given in the new second language. This is the time where a child is building his understanding of the second language and the phase may last between a few weeks to several months varying from child to child (Tabors, 1997). It is not a cause for concern if the child appears to not be talking during this phase as it takes time for him to adjust to the new environment and new language. Younger children usually remain in this phase longer than older children. A child may rely on using gestures during this time and may start to repeat simple words or phrases that are usually based on their routine.
  • Gradually, a child will begin to use short or imitative sentences. The child may start repeating words or short phrases in their second language; however, these are not constructed from the child’s knowledge of the language or vocabulary bank. These phrases are usually learnt by repeating common or routine phrases that he hears and thus memorized.
  •  As a bilingual child’s ability to use short phrases effectively grows the child will reach the stage where he begins to produce his own sentences. These sentences do incorporate some of the child’s own newly -learned vocabulary and are not entirely memorized. As the child becomes more fluent, there may be a period of interference and code-switching. Interference is when the child may use grammatical rules of his home language in their second language. Some of these mistakes may be due to the influence of his first language. However, many of these mistakes are also seen in language development of monolingual children. Code-switching is the process where a child may use words from two languages within one sentence. This happens when the child is unsure of a word in their second language and uses his first language to fill the gaps. Both interference and code-switching are normal processes in the language acquisition of bilingual children.

Debunking misconceptions about Bilingualism

Are bilingual children more likely to have language difficulties, delays, or disorders?

Bilingual children are not more likely than monolingual children to have difficulties with language, to show delays in learning, or to be diagnosed with a language disorder (Paradis, Genesee & Crago, 2011; Petitto & Holowka, 2002). Parents are often concerned when they perceive that their child is behind due to their bilingualism; a misconception that arises due to bilingual children typically knowing fewer words in each of their languages compared to monolingual children. However, when you take into consideration a bilingual child’s conceptual vocabulary across both languages, this apparent difference disappears and his total vocabulary (from both languages) will be at least the same size as a monolingual child (Pearson, Fernandez, Lewedeg & Oller, 1997). Bilingual children may say their first words slightly later than monolingual children, but still within the normal age range (between 8-15 months) (Meisel, 2004). And as the bilingual child starts to produce short sentences, they develop grammar along the same pattern and timeline as monolingual children. If a bilingual child is having difficulties with their first language, they will usually have a difficulty in their second language as well. A bilingual child who is demonstrating significant delays in language milestones could have a language disorder and should be seen by a speech language therapist.

Are bilingual children confused?

One of the biggest misconceptions about bilingualism is that raising a child in a bilingual household will lead to confusion during language development. Code-switching is often misunderstood as a sign of confusion or language delay when bilingual children mix words from two languages in the same sentence. However. Code-switching is a natural part of bilingualism (Goldstein & Kohnert, 2005). One reason that bilingual children code-switch because it happens frequently in their language communities, they copy it from hearing other adults who do the same (Comeau, Genesee & Lapaquette, 2003). Another reason that bilingual children code-switch when they know a word in one language but not the other (Genesee & Nicoladis, 2006). Hence, code-switching should be seen as sign of ingenuity as it is natural and expected in bilingual children.

Is my child bilingual even though he is not equally proficient in both languages?

Most bilinguals have a “dominant language” which they are more proficient at. It is typical for bilingual children to have one language they are “stronger” at. Each language does not have to be at the same proficiency.

Is it best for each parent to speak only one language with a bilingual child?

The “one-person-one-language” strategy may be used by some parents where each parent speaks a different language to the child. Research have shown that this approach is neither necessary nor sufficient to raise a child bilingually and that it has shown to be effective and ineffective in acquisition of both languages. (Barron-Hauwaert, 2004). Hence, parents should speak to their child in a way that is comfortable and natural to them. The best approach is to use whatever strategy that promotes high-quality and high quantity exposure to both languages.

Is earlier better when teaching children to be bilingual?

The concept of a “critical period” for language acquisition suggests that there is a window of time (early childhood) during which a second language is most easily learned. This theory has led to many parents believing that it is better to learn a second language as a young child. Research on bilingualism and second language acquisition has converged on one stand that “earlier is better” (Hakuta, Bialystok & Wiley, 2003). Young children have been found to achieve better native-like pronunciation compared to older children or adult second language learners. There is also an incremental decline in language learning abilities with age according to Birdsong and Molis (2001). However, other research has challenged the idea of a critical period with research showing that older children who learn “Academic” language can have an easier time learning a second language due to more advanced cognitive skills and more experience with schooling and literacy (Paradis, Genesee & Crago, 2011).

Speech and Language therapy for bilingual children

A bilingual clinician will assess the child’s language skills in both languages to determine the child’s entire language profile. This includes the following:

  1. Accurately assessing a bilingual child’s language abilities in each language
  2. Determine a child’s language profile by identifiying problematic and unproblematic abilities in areas of sounds, words, grammar, conversational skills both receptive and expressive language
  3. Evaluate whether there is a delay in one or both languages
  4. Compare language skills against typically and atypically developing monolingual children and bilingual children of the same age
  5. Implement therapy in one or both languages targeting areas of:
    • Expressive language therapy
    • Receptive language therapy
    • Speech therapy

How to support your bilingual child

  • Talk to your child in the language you are most comfortable with more often. Children learn through adult models of language. If you do not feel that you are comfortable or fluent in speaking a certain language, it is best to leave the teaching and language modelling to someone who is proficient.
  • Give your child many opportunities to speak and hear both languages in different situations and with different people. Opportunities to learn languages can be through play, interaction, speaking or hearing the language.
  • Help your child tell the difference between the languages by having clear boundaries (e.g. Using home language with family and second language at school or outside)
  • Read to your child or tell them stories in both languages!
  • If you think that your child has a language delay, consult a speech language pathologist for advice regarding the best ways to help you child to learn more than one language


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