In many countries and in some regions of Spain, being bilingual, or even speaking more than two languages, is considered the norm. But in other regions of Spain, learning a second language is something for new generations, especially learning English as a second language, and many parents wonder if this is the best option, since sometimes they can worry about whether bilingualism is going to cause language development delay, or if it is advisable if your child has special needs. At the same time, they may worry about whether their child will be fully capable of working life if she or he only learned one language.
In this article, we are going to dismantle some false myths about bilingualism, and, based on scientific evidence*, explain why bilingualism, in any case, brings benefits in the cognitive development of people.
Some false myths about bilingualism are:
Bilingualism causes language delay. There are studies that show that language development is the same in all children around the world, regardless of whether they are learning one or more languages, and what these languages are. Thus, we know that children are capable of learning two languages simultaneously, if both languages are taught and practiced inside and / or outside the home.
Like monolingual children, bilingual children may have a language delay. Even so, it has been studied that the cause of this delay is not the learning of two languages, but rather that this difficulty would surely be present even if they were only learning one language.
- If a bilingual child has a language delay, you should wait to start with Speech Therapy. Although there are variations of 5-6 months apart, the first words should appear around 12 months. Around 18-24 months, children should say two-word combinations, and by three years, be able to communicate their needs through language, with complete and understandable sentences, even if their pronunciation and grammar are not perfect.
This is the same for bilingual and monolingual children. If your child is not developing their language at this rate, bilingual or not, you should assess their hearing ability, and consult with a bilingualism specialized speech therapist, to receive professional advice and, if necessary, begin treatment as soon as possible.
- Children with learning difficulties should not learn more than one language. Whether your child has a cognitive deficit, a developmental delay, or a learning disability, bilingualism is not going to cause further delay in their cognitive or language development. There is no scientific evidence to support that dropping one of the two languages they are learning will solve language development issues. Even so, it is true that, if speech therapy is required and it is necessary to choose between several languages, the child's first language will be supported, this being the language in which the child performs better, or the one that she/he listens to the most (if they still hardly speak).
Take the example of a child with a language delay, of Pakistani parents (who can speak English), who grows up in Spain and goes to a British school. This child should receive Speech Therapy in English, and, if possible, additional support at home from the parents in English as well, since it’s the language in which he receives the most stimulation during the day. Also, it won’t be necessary for his parents to completely stop communicating with the child in Urdu, if this is their native language, and it will be okay if some classmates speak Spanish to him. in the playground. It will always be important to evaluate each specific case, and from there, determine guidelines for the next steps to follow, since treatment may vary from one patient to another.
- Learning to read and write in two languages can cause difficulties and confussion. ** Studies have shown that learning to read and write in two languages is better than in one language alone. This is because the cognitive skills developed for each of the languages are transferred to the other language, making it even easier for bilingual readers. It is important to clarify that children will need the teaching and practice of each of the languages to learn, and that the better their oral level is in a language, the easier it will be to learn to read it.
After dismantling these myths about bilingualism, it’s important to emphasize that there is no correct way to introduce a second language: it can be done from birth or taught later. However, the language spoken by the community where our daughter or son grows up in, the first language, will never be diminished by learning a second language, but the second language can be diminished by the first language, so it’s important to give a special and continuous support to the second language.
For example, a Spanish family whose daughter learns French from a caregiver from 2 to 4 years old, and at the same time is learning Spanish, because it’s the language of her parents and of her community. If from the age of 5 this child stops having French language stimulation, which would be her second language, she will probably forget her French vocabulary soon, but she would continue being able to communicate in Spanish, the majority language.
In conclusion, the quality and quantity of the language received will directly affect the learning of one or more languages. High-quality language will include direct communication to the child and their observation of other people interacting in a language, and the quantity will be the amount of time the child is exposed to each language.
With adequate stimulation and support, we will enable our children to learn several languages and to grow and function fully in an increasingly bilingual and multicultural world.
* If you want to continue learning about bilingualism and education, and learn about scientific studies on it, I recommend the books "Raising a bilingual child", by Bárbara Zurer Pearson, and "The Bilingual Brain: And What It Tells Us about the Science of Language", by Albert Costa .
** If you want to know more about bilingualism and literacy, do not miss our article "Literacy development and identifying bilingual children with difficulties”, by my colleague Clara Blázquez Booth. https://www.sinews.es/es/easyblog/entry/literacy-development-and-identifying-bilingual-children-with-difficulties.html