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Early Bilingualism - Does Early Bilingualism Delay Language Development?

 

  • This is a common myth that follows research dating back to the 1920s and 1930s which was later proved wrong. In actuality, if a child has language difficulties or delays in development, those will be observed in both languages. Research indicates that the pace of language acquisition is relatively similar between monolingual and bilingual children. However, don’t forget that the bilingual child is learning two language systems at the same time, with two sets of sounds (e.g., the 36 sounds of the 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. In addition, if one language is more dominant than the other, this may simply just reflect a greater exposure to that language.
  • Sounds - From the first months after birth, "bilingual" babies distinguish sounds from different languages. Their first word would be pronounced more or less at the same age. Very young bilingual children (less than two years old) may need a few months more than unilingual children to recognize homophones or very similar sounds (“the sky” and “this guy”, for example).
  • Vocabulary - At the age of two years old, the vocabulary understood by bilingual children (measured according to the Peabody Scale) may be less extensive than that understood by monolingual children. But if one considers the two languages, the total vocabulary of young bilingual children is the same as for monolingual children, and as they progress in their language development, their vocabulary will exceed that of monolingual children. Vocabulary also depends on the family environment, in particular the reading that takes place. Generally, children first retain the words in the language in which they were learned in (e.g., "rec center" with the non-francophone parent, "Toutou" with the Francophone parent).
  • Grammar and syntax - children must learn to respect syntax according to the language that they express themselves in. To do this, they must distinguish the syntactic structures and determine the language to which they belong. For example, they could go through a phase where they use “est-ce que...” in both languages (such as "est-ce que you give it to her"), until they understand that “est-ce que...” belongs with French.
  • To find out more about delays in language development, see Developmental and Language Difficulties – Warning Signs.
  • To find out more about mixing languages (code switching), see Mixing Languages (Code Switching) – Should I Be Concerned?

 To find out more...

  • "Bilingual babies are smarter" - Newspaper article from The Vancouver Sun (January 18, 2013) presenting a quick overview of the main advantages of early childhood bilingualism according to Canadian academic researchers.
  • "Bilingualism: What happens in the brain?" - Article from Medical News Today  (October 4, 2017) presenting an overview of the research about the effects of bilingualism on the brain.