When it comes to language, two is better than one

By Dr Raj Khillan & Pauline Emil
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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Why bilingual children are better at problem-solving

The world is becoming more multilingual. Nowadays, it’s common for parents to teach their kids two or more languages. Australia is a highly diverse country built on the back of immigration. As indicated by the 2016 statistics, English is the main language spoken in the home for nearly 73% of the populace. The following most common language spoken at home are: Mandarin (2.5%), Arabic (1.4%), Cantonese (1.2%), Vietnamese (1.2%), Italian (1.2%), Greek (1.0%), Hindi (0.7%), Spanish (0.6%) and Punjabi (0.6%). An impressive number of first-and second-generation immigrants are bilingual.

In Canada, 11.9 % of the population speaks a language other than English or French at home. In the United States, the percentage of school-age children speak a language other than English at home.

Bilingualism, on the other hand, is often confused as a cause of speech delay because of the two ways of its acquisition—simultaneous and sequential acquisition.

Simultaneous acquisition happens when two languages are introduced to a child at the same time. This means that the second language is taught before the child reaches the age of three. Meanwhile, sequential acquisition is when the second language is introduced after the age of three. At this point, the child has already established his first language.

Every bilingual child is unique. Learning two languages depends on the amount and type of practice your child gets. Most bilingual children speak their first words by the time they are 1 year old. By age 2, most children can use two-word phrases. Phrases like “my mummy” or “more food” can be in one or both languages. From time to time, children may mix grammar rules. They might use words from both languages in the same sentence. This is a normal part of becoming bilingual. Some children may not talk much when they start using a second language. This “silent period” can last for several months. Again, this is normal and will go away.

There is evidenced-based research indicating bilingual children have social and cognitive advantages over monolingual children. Bilingual children can ignore distractions and focus their attention on important information

Despite this, there’s a growing concern among parents with regard to the rise of bilingualism. Others are linking bilingualism to speech delay. Of course, no parent would want to have their children experience delays in speech development or any other kind of growth.

But, is there a valid reason to be worried? Or are we just depriving our children of the advantages of bilingualism because of a misleading myth?

Often parents are told by some health professionals not to speak two languages with their child, or I will have parents say to me: “I don’t want to confuse him/her by speaking two languages”.

These are all myths. There are a lot of myths that dual-language learning causes language delay in children, would confuse the child, or that bilingual children are less intelligent than monolingual children or reducing to one language would improve a child’s chances for success. It is far from the truth.

There is no evidence indicating that speaking to your child in more than one language causes a delay or that speaking one language will improve your child’s chance for success. Children who speak one language make a lot of errors. It is a normal part of language learning, and, it is not a sign of confusion.

On the other hand, there is evidenced-based research indicating bilingual children have social and cognitive advantages over monolingual children. Bilingual children can ignore distractions and focus their attention on important information. They are more creative. Bilinguals are better at planning and solving complex problems than monolingual children. The effects of ageing on the brain are diminished among bilingual adults.

Even with bilingual children with severe autism expert speech therapist can maintain both the languages spoken in the home or the school/community with additional help of course. Their learning differences do not impair their language abilities beyond what we know is true for monolingual children who face the same learning challenges.

One study found that the onset of dementia was delayed by four years in bilingual children compared to monolingual children. Bilinguals have higher employment rates in some countries

One study found that the onset of dementia was delayed by four years in bilingual children compared to monolingual children. Bilingual children have better access to people and resources. Bilinguals have higher employment rates in some countries. For example, in Canada, people who speak both official languages, i.e., English and French have a 10% higher income rate than those who speak only English.

Reducing to one language can cause a lot of other difficulties emotionally and psychologically because parents can struggle to communicate with their child, and the child might not fit in with other family members and friends. Many parents are learning English themselves, so they are not able to model rich linguistic grammar and therefore, the children only get exposed to simpler linguistic models in English.

Research suggests speaking to your child in the language that you speak best as this will provide your child with rich linguistic input. Learning more than one language is doable. Also, children with Autism can be bilingual as there is no scientific evidence that children with developmental disabilities or language impairment cannot learn more than one language. Remember half of the world is bilingual or multilingual.

If you and your partner have different languages, the one person-one language model for supporting multilingualism or bilingualism might work for you.For example, if your language is English and your partner’s is Mandarin, you speak English to your children and your partner speaks Mandarin to them.This model can work with more than one language other than English. For example, if you speak Spanish and your partner speaks Italian, you each speak your own language to your children at home. If you both speak English as well, you might choose to use English with them outside the home. Your children will also learn to use English at school and in the community.It’s ideal if you both understand each other’s languages so neither of you feels left out when you speak your language to your children.

So, don’t miss the chance to improve your child’s potentials. Get them ready for the multilingual world as early as childhood.


Dr Raj Khillan is a paediatrician at Western Specialist Centre; Pauline Emil is a speech pathologist at Change for Life

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