Should I raise my baby bilingual, and if so, why?

Some parents may be apprehensive when deciding what language(s) they should speak in to their infant. Are you concerned that more than one language could overload your baby? Are you worried that if you speak one language and your partner speaks another to your baby that your baby will be confused? The following information is provided to encourage parents/caregivers to speak the languages that they value with their child, as soon as the baby is born!

When a child is exposed to two languages from birth, they have the unique ability to hone in on the important phonemes (sounds) of any language(s) presented to them through statistical learning. In addition, they are capable of tracking the intonational patterns of the languages that they are exposed to in order to further delineate the two (or more) languages. However, this ability to differentiate and adapt to more than one language does not always remain. This critical period is noted, according to researchers, between 6-8 months, and starts to disappear around 10-12 months. But why does it disappear? At 10-12 months, the baby loses this skill so that he/she is better prepared to become a master of the languages that his/her parents and caregivers speak. Therefore, it is easy for a baby to learn more than one language the earlier that it is introduced, and acquiring another language becomes harder as one gets older. (For more information about this critical period, feel free to view the following TedTalk: – link below http://www.ted.com/talks/patricia_kuhl_the_linguistic_genius_of_babies)

However, this ability to delineate languages does not mean to suggest that the two systems of each language function independently. The two languages, when they are provided with equal experiences (equal quantity and quality of language), function harmoniously, in that they positively influence one another. For example, when the child speaks in one language, they have to simultaneously inhibit the other language from infiltrating the first language that they are using. In contrast, the flexibility to switch back and forth between the two languages, known as code-switching, also indicates a superiority of the overall executive functioning of the individual. Efficient code-switching is exemplary of an overall greater ease of switching between many different types of tasks. Having the control to inhibit one language, while also controlling the easy flow from one language to the other, shows efficient language processing skills. Further executive function research indicates that bilinguals may learn novel words faster, due to a need for fewer exposures (Kaushanskaya, Gross, and Buac, 2014). Overall, this superior control ability is directly correlated to length of bilingual experience. Therefore, theoretically, bilinguals from birth would have the strongest control ability.

Differences in vocabulary of bilinguals from monolinguals may erroneously be perceived as a disadvantage of bilingualism. A bilingual from birth probably has a smaller vocabulary in each language than a similar monolingual, but when the entire lexicon is taken in to consideration, the bilingual has an overall larger vocabulary. Similarly, due to the presence of two languages, and the obligation to endlessly inhibit a language while the other is being used, bilinguals may have a slower response time or processing time, but this processing time is practically imperceptible, and is not obvious to the average person. It can therefore be concluded that while a minuscule difference in response time may be present, a bilingual’s overall executive functioning skills are stronger than that of a monolingual’s, as evidenced from better control over inhibition and more precise selective attention, due to the nature of being bilingual.

Written by: Taylor Viggers, MS, CF-SLP

Buac, M., Gross, M., & Kaushanskaya, M. (2014). The role of home language environment in the development of monolingual and bilingual children’s vocabulary skills. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 57, 1804-1816.

 

Gross, M., Buac, M., & Kaushanskaya, M. (2014). Conceptual scoring of receptive and expressive vocabulary measures in simultaneous and sequential bilingual children. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology.

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