I get asked this question all the time, and the answer is YES! Raising your child to be bilingual can actually be beneficial for your little one’s brain development, language development, and cognition! In fact, just hearing two languages helps babies develop strong>cognitive skills, such as decision making and problem solving, before your little one even begins to speak. If you read my blog Communication & Connection with Your Baby In & Out of the Womb, you know that babies begin to learn language from within the womb. At 26 weeks in utero, your baby starts to hear, such as pitch, some rhythm, and some specific speech sounds, making language development, including dual language development, happen right inside the womb!
It has been long assumed that childhood bilingualism affected a child’s developing mind and that consequently, learning two languages would be confusing. However, a study by Peal & Lamber, found that bilingual children were superior on most tests, especially those requiring symbol reorganization and manipulation. Since then, the difference between monolingual and bilingual children has been explored in several studies, most finding a significant impact on overall cognitive development for bilingual children, debunking the myth that learning two languages at the same time can be confusing.
A study out of the University of Washington, tested 16 babies and found that the babies from English and Spanish speaking households showed activity in their prefrontal cortex and orbitofrontal cortex-regions of the brain that are responsible for executive functioning tasks, like decision making and problem solving.
To sum it up. the research shows that the best window of opportunity to expose your little one to a second language is during their early childhood years and that there are in facts, benefits to being bilingual.
- Exposure & Quantity: How often is your child exposed to each language
- Proficiency & Quality: How proficient is the speaker your kiddo is learning from
- Simultaneous vs. Sequential: What is the manner in which the second language is exposed?
Simultaneous Language Acquisition is when your little one learns both languages at the same time, typically before 3 years of age, and this can come in a few different forms:
- Each Parent Picks a Language: Each parent selects the language they are most comfortable and proficient in speaking and speaks that language with your kiddo. For example, Parent 1 grew up speaking Spanish and is also proficient in English, Parent 2 only speaks English, so Parent 1 speaks Spanish to their little one, and Parent 2 speaks English.
- Mixing It Up: One parent speaks one language to the child while the other parent speaks both languages. For example, Parent 1 grew up speaking Mandarin and only speaks Mandarin to the child, Parent 2 is proficient in Mandarin and English so Parent 2 speaks both languages to the child.
- Both Parents Speak Both Languages: Each parent speaks both languages to their child and determines what setting and what opportunity is best for each language. For example, both parents speak mostly English at home, but when they go to grandparent’s house, they speak Arabic.
Sequential Language Acquisition is when your child learns one language first and then learns another language afterwards. Reminds me of middle school French class or even more, how I grew up (more on that to come).
Research has shown when compared to monolingual children, it is common for children learning two languages to have a decreased repertoire of vocabulary, however, this usually catches up once your little one starts school. When your little one begins using words, make sure you count how many words they are using in both language (for example, “dog” in English and “cane” or “cagna” in Italian-although has the same meaning, counts as two different words.
If you are contemplating whether or not to expose your little one to more than one language, I say do it I grew up as a sequential language learner, my first language was Farsi and my second language, learned in school, was English. I later went onto take French in middle and high school and sadly to say, not much stuck-this goes to show the importance of early language acquisition! For my parents, what felt right for them was talking to me in the language they felt most proficient in, Farsi, and having me learn English once I began going to preschool. Do what is right for your family, connect with your kiddo and see what lands best for them.
Sholeh Shahinfar, MA, CCC-SLP, RYT
Sholeh Shahinfar is the Founder of Valued Voices, a licensed Speech Language Pathologist, Child Communication Specialist and Certified Oral Motor Therapist. She is passionate about uplifting children’s voices in the world and inspiring self-expression. In her free time, Sholeh embraces a vegan lifestyle, loves going to the ocean, exploring nature with her pup Kobe, practicing yoga, traveling, and spending time with her loved ones.