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Bilingualism - Young Children


We often hear that children are like sponges and that they can easily learn any language when they are young. This is true, provided that they are thoroughly exposed to the language - they cannot absorb what they are not given.
(translated from Naître et grandir - L'apprentissage de plusieurs langues - website available in French only)

  •  Why do children become bilingual at an early age? Because they must communicate with various people in their family circle who speak different languages.
  • To develop strong bilingualism in both languages, the critical threshold would be to speak each at least 30% of the time, according to Fred Genesee (Grandir en deux langues - in Enfants Québec magazine, April 2011 - available in French only).
  • In situations where one of the two languages is a minority language, it’s recommended to increase the number of situations where the child is exposed to that language. See the following topics: The Importance of Oral Expression in Language Development, Myths About Early Bilingualism, The Role of the Francophone Parent in a Bilingual Family, The Role of the Non-francophone Parent in a Bilingual Family and Promoting French (the 4 Rs).
  • Specialists agree that the ability to learn a second language decreases around the ages of 6 or 7.
  • Research indicates that the rate of language acquisition is relatively similar between monolingual and bilingual children. However, don’t forget that a bilingual child is learning two language systems at the same time, with two sets of sounds (e.g., the 36 sounds of French, or the 44 sounds of English), two sets of vocabulary and two grammar systems. This requires a lot of analysis which may give the impression that the bilingual child is slower. If one language is more dominant than the other, this may simply just reflect a greater exposure to that language.
  • Bilingualism incorporates proven cognitive advantages. Compared to monolingual children, bilingual children are able to concentrate with greater ease and are less distracted. They develop divergent thinking that produces original and less conventional solutions. The studies that have established this start with the assumption that having two systems of mental representation ** increases flexibility and originality of thought**. By “mental representation systems", we mean that a bilingual person has two words for a single object or a single thought, which in turn means that they have a broader semantic repertoire (Abdelilah-Bauer, Le défi des enfants bilingues).  

To find out more…

  • Video about the linguistic genius of babies | Video of Patricia Kuhl, a researcher of international repute who is studying how babies learn language (and what happens in their brains). Literally, babies listen carefully to the sounds around them and "compile statistics" to determine the sounds they need to communicate. This means that the most frequent sounds are selected as being useful, and the less frequent sounds are abandoned. Hence the importance of exposing children to the sounds of French, to support and facilitate their learning of this language. Until the age of seven, children are language geniuses. Subsequently, their ability to learn a second language steadily declines. The video is in English but viewers can activate a French subtitle function.
  • Curve of the Optimal Age for Learning a New Language | Table with comments showing the decline, according to age, of the ability to learn a new language.
  • The Linguistic Bank Account of the Young Bilingual Francophone | Table with comments showing various proportions of exposure to English and French.
  • Naître et grandir - L'apprentissage de plusieurs langues (website available in French only)
  • Grandir en deux langues - in Enfants Québec magazine, April 2011 (available in French only)
  • Series of articles on the construction of identity and bilingualism (in English - Parenthèses magazine)
  • Le défi des enfants bilingues (Barbara Abdelilah-Bauer), Éditions La Découverte, 2008, 207 p. | Chapters three and four of the book deal with bilingualism at an early age.
  • Guide du développement du langage chez l’enfant en milieu exogame (in French with tips and advice in English for language development in a family where the parents don’t have the same mother tongue) | A practical guide for parents of children from 0 to 7 years old by SOFA (Yukon). Written in simple language, it contains useful information classified by the age of the child, and practical advice in French and English for life in a bilingual family (e.g. what the parents who speak different languages can do to support their child's language development). Interestingly, the author suggests the use of a few American sign language (ASL) gestures for the period from birth to six months, to allow the child to express a few basic concepts (I love you, thirst, hunger, etc.) that both parents can understand.