#1 multilingual children have two separate language systems from early on and they don’t get confused. Yes the languages influence each other but that’s not a sign of confusion. In fact, it’s a sign of separateness. You can only mix what was separate to begin with. Newborn infants have been found to distinguish between two different languages. In fact, this ability is considered to be robust at birth in all children. Very young bilingual children often know words for the same thing in both of their languages. They don’t always keep the languages separate when they speak and that’s okay. It’s not a sign of disorder or confusion. Multilingual adults tend to do it to varying degrees and children learn their patterns of language use from those around them. You don’t have to keep the languages separate to avoid confusion– they’re already separate from the get go. The research doesn’t support a one person, one language approach as the optimum way to raise multilingual children.
# 2 When assessing a multilingual child’s vocabulary, total vocabulary is what’s important. That means all the words they know in all of their languages. Why? Because it gives the best indicator of their language learning capacity. You can exclude words that sound similar in the languages. Bilingual children’s rate of total vocabulary growth is equal to or greater than monolingual children’s rate of total vocabulary growth.
#3 Multilingual children are not in the process of becoming monolingual speakers of each of their languages. An important point to think about here is the tendency to compare multilingual children’s language development with that of monolingual children. There’s a long tradition of this in the research, partly to dispel the myth that multilingualism causes speech and language problems. How can monolingual language development be the benchmark against which multilingual children’s language development is measured though? It’s like comparing apples with oranges. Sure, they’re both fruit so they have that in common but they’re very distinct fruit. Monolingual children are in the process of acquiring one language only. Multilingual children are not in the process of learning two or more languages in the same way. They’re not becoming monolingual speakers of each of their languages. Balanced languages? An illusion. There’s a lot of variability between language development in multilingual children because of all the influencing factors in the mix. Even when researchers group multilingual children together, they get a lot of variation within the group. Resist the urge to compare multilingual children with monolingual speakers of any of their languages. It’s not a legitimate comparison. The range of typical language development in multilingual children is wide.
#4 Bilingual children can have different strengths in each language as they have different experiences with different people in different places. So they may know words to do with home and family in their home language and words to do with school subjects in the school language. They may have similar levels of understanding in both languages but be better expressively in one compared to another. At a particular time. They might do well in a test of story grammar (where the story is set, the characters, the problem etc) but not as well when it comes to sentence length. At a particular time. Language development in multilingual children is not a uniform upwards trajectory across all languages and language skills over time. That’s why a range of language skills need to be measured in a range of contexts across time.
#5 The quantity and quality of input in each language influences language development rates. Children’s language develops more rapidly in the language that they hear more of and have more opportunities to use. As their levels of exposure change because of things like grandparents visiting for extended periods, summer holidays in the home language country, changes in child care, then their skill levels change too. It’s not all about quantity though. Quality of input is important too. You need to use a range of different words and types of words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions) and complex sentences as they get older. Reading together helps you do this and is better for language development than watching TV. Hearing your home language from a range of different native speakers is better than the same number of hours of language exposure from fewer speakers. More speakers means more child-directed speech and richer, more variable input. And it’s good for language development for your to child to process input from different speakers. Input from native speakers is better for language development than input from non-native speakers. This means that if English is not your native language and you’re not that comfortable speaking it, that you’re better off focusing on your home language. For English, it’s about finding opportunities for your child to interact with native speakers but not about reducing your use of your home language.
A large scale Australian study from 2016 found that after input and opportunities to use home languages, the other things that helped language development and maintenance of home languages were parents using the home language, the presence of a grandparent in the home, the use of family (informal) childcare, & migration to an English-dominant country in recent generations.
#6 If you are a parent who is also immigrant, then it’s really important to keep speaking your language with your children because home languages are part of cultural heritage passed from generation to generation. Children in immigrant families who speak the home language tend to have better family relationships and stronger ethnic identities than those who can’t. Studies in the U.S. involving immigrant children have found that teenagers who speak both their home language and the community language are more likely to graduate from high school and to develop close family and cultural connections associated with social and emotional health and well-being. Good family relationships and strong ethnic identity are associated with other desired outcomes such as academic achievement. It’s most likely easier to provide more nuanced and more cognitively stimulating input to your children in your home language. And easier to connect emotionally and form attachments. And children who are good at reading in their home language, tend to be good at reading in a second language. So you can help your child’s second language development by focusing on school-relevant skills like reading in your home language.
# 7 Bilingual environments vary enormously in the support they provide for each language, with the result that bilingual children vary widely in their bilingual language skills. There’s no ‘average’ bilingual experience or ‘average’ bilingual skill profile. Every home is different in terms of how much of each language is being spoken, the number of speakers of each language, the proportion of each language coming from native speakers, how much interaction happens between parents and children, the richness of the language used, the amount of reading together. When one parent is the only speaker of a home language, then the community language tends to dominate. Children who go to school in the community language tend to use it more at home which has the effect of increasing others’ use of the community language at home too. This means that multilingual children with older siblings are likely to have more advanced English and a less developed home language than children of the same age who don’t have older siblings. If your child is dividing their time between two households, then the patterns of language use may vary across the households. This all means that if you’re attending an SLT, the SLT needs to explore your child’s language experience in all contexts from home to child care, school to playing with peers, out of school activities, summer holidays and so on.
#8 When skills in both languages are considered, children who speak two or more languages are not at greater risk for speech and language impairment than monolingual children. A large scale Australia study published in 2015 found that speaking a language other than English at 4-5 years did not in itself, affect children’s academic outcomes at school. The researchers found no evidence that multilingualism in combination with speech and language concerns resulted in a “double delay” in academic or behavioral outcomes. At age 6-7 and 8-9, any early gaps between multilingual children and English-only speaking children on things like vocabulary had closed. Academic outcomes at school were more related to whether or not their parents were concerned about their children’s speech and language skills at 4-5 years of age, than children’s being multilingual.
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What I read so you don’t have to:
Hoff, E. & Core, C. (2015) What clinicians need to know about bilingual development. Seminars in Speech & Language 36: 89-99.
Hammer, C., Hoff, E., Uchikoshi, Y., Gillan ders, C., Castro, D., & Sandilos, L. (2014) The language and literacy development of young dual language learners: a critical review. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 29: 715-733
Hoff, E. & Ribot, K. (2017) Language growth in English monolingual and Spanish-English bilingual children from 2.5-5 years. The Journal of Paediatrics 190:241-245
McLeod, S. Harrison, L., Whiteford, C., & Walker, S. (2015) Multilingualism and speech-language competence in early childhood: impact on academic and social-emotional outcomes at school. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 34: 53-66.
Place, S. & Hoff, E. (2011) Properties of dual language exposure that influence two year old’s bilingual proficiency. Child Development 82 (6): 1834-1849
Verdon, S., McLeod, S. and Winsler, A. (2014) Language maintenance and loss in a population study of young Australian children. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 29:168-181.