You may or may not already know, but our little family happens to be biracial, making Bean half Hispanic and half Caucasian. This means, an entire half of his family speaks an entirely different language than I do. While he has relatively little physical contact with his Hispanic side of the family, his father works hard to provide him video and phone contact with his relatives. This means that unless he learns to speak Spanish along with English, he will be unable to communicate with half his family members (none of them speak very good English).
Since before he was born, Lino and I had decided it would be imperative he become bilingual. Not only would this allow him to speak with the rest of his family, it is a very common language in the area in which we live. However, I worried there could be potential issues with learning more than one language at once. So, I dug into some research and here’s what I found.
What about developmental or speech delays?
Children who are taught to be bilingual from the get go meet all major developmental milestones at similar times as their monolingual cohort. Bilingual children will often have a lower vocabulary level in a single language as compared to their counterpart, but will have a greater combined vocabulary across the board. So, they are actually learning a lot more words than a monolingual child, on average. They aren’t speech “delayed,” as many like to assume.
How will they sound?
Children who are exposed to multiple languages early on, especially during the 6-8 month range, are more likely to sound like a native speaker. This is because the brain is designed to narrow down and weed out all the tones of other languages that are not used regularly in order to master the one it’s exposed to frequently. So, if there’s 2 languages the kid is hearing, they will keep both and narrow less. Essentially, kids start as a blank slate and become more fine tuned to the nuances of the language they are exposed to the most. The more languages they are exposed to regularly, the less they will narrow.
Will they be able to tell the difference between languages?
When considering the benefits and costs of bilingualism, I also worried that if Lino regularly switched between English and Spanish (as he is well versed in both), that Bean would end up learning “one” language that was a blended version of Spanish and English, rather than 2 separate languages. In fact, there’s opinion all over the place that says just that. However, the scientific literature suggests there is no statistical difference between kids that learned from a mix of languages in one conversation and kids that learned from one language spoken consistently per parent. Furthermore, the research suggests that mixing the languages within a conversation can be considered a mastery of both languages. This switching is often referred to as “code switching” and even 2 year olds can do this well.
How can we even implement this?
So, by this point, I’d pretty much decided Bean would be bilingual. Lino and I came up with a game plan to read Bean stories in both languages and that Lino would mainly speak to Bean in Spanish, only switching to English if necessary. The only concern I have with Lino switching on occasion is that, at some point, Bean will not know the word or phrase to something and will switch to the language in which he is stronger. While this can be squashed easily by Lino speaking to him ONLY in Spanish, no matter the cost, it likely won’t happen that way. Lino tends to go back and forth between the languages when I am around. So, it’s a work in progress.
Our next question was, would it be enough? I know there are crap-loads of bilingual programs and/or videos for kids to start learning language, but the literature suggests that human interaction is always preferable to electronic resources. For example, you could sit your kid in front of Spanish television for 8 hours per day and they likely wouldn’t learn much of anything…but if you spent 8 hours per day in a dialogue with them, they would retain MUCH more.
I want to add that though this method works very well for kids, but it does not mean adults or kids cannot learn from watching television in some part. In fact, Lino spent many hours watching television in English to help him learn the language better. It just means that you shouldn’t use it as a primary method of teaching a language. Like any language acquisition, the best method is to speak it and read it to your little one. Reading is HUGE.
Does it work?
Jury is still out on this one. Bean is just barely learning his first words as of right now, but we have already been enriching his life with both languages, consistently. We also read to him in both languages. I work hard to find lots of literature in Spanish as I know he will get much more exposure to English even without the extra help.
I will say that I’ve read tons of articles and first hand accounts of those who have already done this (some with 3, 4 or 5 languages at once), with great success. Additionally, everyone I’ve ever talked to has stated it’s very possible for your child to become literate in both, as long as you put in the work to make it happen.
From what I recall in my education career, I can also say children, in their toddler years, have brains that are wired specifically for language acquisition. They actually learn it differently than an adult would and it’s easier for them to do so. So, why not work with that strength while they have it? Because, the older they get, the harder it becomes for it to stick. That alone is enough to convince me. Stick around a few years and I’ll let you know how it goes for us.
Have you considered raising your kids bilingual? How has it been? Let me know in the comments below.