Does Speaking Two Languages Affect Your Child's Speech Negatively?

Some clarity on common misconceptions about bilingualism.

By Renu Nargunde*

There are a lot of misconceptions floating around about bilingualism and multilingualism in kids, and here I want to clear them up once and for all.

Is the speech of bilingual children delayed?

"My 3-year old child makes a lot of mistakes in pronunciation and grammar: is that because she is bilingual?"

It used to be suggested that bilingual children were a little slower in learning to speak than monolingual children. However, this is not supported by research. A bilingual child whose speech is delayed (for example, if they have not said the first word by 18 months) should be screened for other physical and psychological issues.

What's bilingualism got to do with intelligence?

"Is it true that only highly intelligent people can learn more than one language?"

Bilingualism certainly does not decrease intelligence, and it probably doesn't increase it either. There are bilinguals of all degrees of intelligence, just as there are monolinguals of all degrees of intelligence. However, research suggests that exposure to two languages may actually give toddlers a cognitive advantage in the areas of self-control or executive functioning over young children who use only one language.

If you're wondering whether exposing a young child to a second language early in his development is a good idea, the answer is yes!

For example, if a child has good self-control, he'll find it easier to focus his attention on what's important and he'll be less likely to become distracted while trying to listen to a teacher or complete a task. In social situations, he may have greater ease in tailoring his behaviour to a specific context. And when his peers suggest a potentially harmful activity, his self-control may make it easier for him to refuse.

So if you're wondering whether exposing a young child to a second language early in his development is a good idea, the answer is yes!

Will hearing me speak more than one language confuse my child?

Children are not confused by hearing more than one language. We have known for a long time that bilingual children separate their language from the age of 2. However, current research suggests they separate them from the beginning.

People who grow up in multicultural countries like India or Singapore take bilingualism for granted. Parents typically speak two or three languages to children, and parents and children often mix languages in the same sentence. Mixing languages in the same sentence doesn't confuse children. And if the child mixes languages it is not a sign of confusion.

When is the best time to introduce a second language to my baby?

There's a 'window' of learning language that "opens" at about the age of ten months. Infants can hear much earlier, of course (even in the womb, most likely).

From zero to two years, children acquire language at an astonishing rate.

By the age of three, they have acquired basic syntax (sentence structure), basic grammar (the 'rules' of the language), and a large vocabulary of basic words necessary for their physical and emotional survival.

Hence, the "optimal" time for learning a second language appears to be at the same time as the first language, i.e. in the home beginning at birth to three years (providing the parents speak these two languages as their mother tongue).

The next best time for learning a second, third, and even a fourth language, appears to be between the ages of two to seven years.

A third period for learning a second language is from about ten to thirteen years of age, this is in cases when the second language is not the language of either the parents or the environment. This is the reason behind the push to introduce a "foreign" language learning into the curriculum of elementary schools in the grade when the child is about 10-11 years old.

Here are some phonics videos you may enjoy watching with your child!

* Renu is a psychologist, counsellor and trainer with expertise in designing programs for educational institutions. She has been in the fields of education and counselling for more than fifteen years. She is a certified trainer for the British Council's Core Skills program. She has conducted several workshops for adults and children in the areas of lateral thinking, brain gym, building emotional intelligence, psychometric assessment, multiple intelligences, learning styles and developing leadership skills.

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