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5 Myths about Developing Bilingualism in the Early Years (Part 1)

For thousands families we have worked closely with in the past six years, there are some myths on bilingualism – especially 1st time parents with young children. We got asked almost daily!

Before we begin to demystifying these myths, let’s first define what is bilingualism and language acquisition. Language acquisition has 2 major parts: oracy (listening and speaking) and literacy (reading and writing); with a single goal: to understand and communicate to be understood.

Every parent wants their children to be fully bilingual and biliterate, however, depending on where they live and their expectations, families may want a spectrum of bilingualism, with varying levels of oracy and literacy. The levels of oracy or fluency are dependent on 3 types of exposures: what languages are spoken at home, at school and also at the playground or children’s playdates.

A 3-6 years old child spends their waking hours at school, and 1-3 hours with their friends and playdates, and lots of hours with family. So all these hours spent on multiple languages need to be taken into consideration. It is easily taken for granted what languages each family member speaks, yet, language is a long acquisition process, without planning especially during the early ages, you may have missed the golden window of language exposure.

Now let’s go through the 5 Myths:

  1. Will my child get confused if we start with more than 1 language?

Not at all! Not only research shows it won’t confuse children, research also shows the average exposure time a child needs per day is 2-3 hours. So if your child has 8 waking hours, a child can start with at least 3 languages at birth, provided that later the exposure time can be sustained.

Image result for golden period to learning chart

Critical Period of Language Learning: 0-5 Yrs (700 synapses formed per second)

Diminishing Ability After Puberty: 12-16 Yrs+

* Research in 1989 by Charles A. Nelson, PhD. Professor of Paediatrics Boston Children’s Hospital, Published with the Harvard Medical School

This is a brain development chart published by Harvard medical school in 1989. A child’s golden period of language development is between birth to 5 years old. Before they were born, they were already listening to lots of speeches, and when they are born, their hearing senses are constantly absorbing all sounds around them, as they develop their tongue muscle, they are typically ready to make sounds and speak words between 8 to 12 months old. All the languages that are exposed to children before 5 years old could be essentially thought of as their native languages and there could be as many as possible.

  1. Will my child experience a speech delay if we start with multiple languages?

Maybe. Research shows that vocabularies for bilinguals frequently seem to perform at lower levels than monolinguals, the reason being that bilingual children have to learn two different labels for everything. Research by Mayo clinic in the US shows a monolingual child has between 200-300 word vocabulary when he/she is 2 years old, and 900-1000 word vocabulary when he/she is 3 years old; this number will need to be halved for each language for a bilingual child. However if a child still prefers to use gestures rather than vocalizations to communicate by the time they were 18-24 months old, parents should seek help from a speech therapist.

  1. Should I translate while teaching my child multiple languages?

If your child is under the age of 5, absolutely not. Children are learning about the world through their senses and social interactions. The best way for them to learn is to immerse themselves in a particular language and build up their framework of the world and knowledge system in that targeted language. We have seen young children who are absolutely capable of facing an English speaking person speaking and learning in English, and turning around and facing a Chinese speaking person speaking and learning in Chinese.

Follow this great quote: “Tell Me and I Forget; Teach Me and I May Remember; Involve Me and I will Learn” So involve them, teach them through interactions rather than feeding them the answers by translating for them.

  1. Should I worry if my child is mixing words from multiple languages [code-switching]?

As long as language learning is done in a consistent way, in the early years a child may code switch and mix words from multiple languages. They are trying their best to express themselves through all vocabularies they have learnt, so they may perfectly mix different names or vocabularies together in Chinese and English together, when that happens, don’t worry, and give them the equivalent vocabulary in both languages so they will keep learning.

If you are introducing a new language to your child, introduce it gently by 10-20 minutes a day, then gradually step up the time, and focus on your child’s interest and engagement rather than instant results.

  1. Should I worry if my child speaks one language more than another?

Same as the above, the answer is not. Being a bilingual adult, I have realized that I rarely see a balanced bilingual person. The vocabulary you learn in different languages may not completely overlap, and depending on how much you use each language, you may get more fluent in one language than another.

Periodically reflect and assess how is your child’s fluency and literacy level in each of the languages he/she is trying to acquire. When you realize one language may be behind another, you can look into their language oracy input and output (listening and speaking at home, at school and with their friends), and also their language literacy level (reading and writing in classes). You can adjust these levels as it goes, and it will be a continuous improvement process.

After defining Bilingualism and Language Acquisition, and demystifying these 5 Myths, you may have concepts in Developing Bilingualism. Before planning the long acquisition process especially during the early ages, we will have part 2 to discuss other relative problems the parents mentioned. Understand more for children’s golden window of language exposure.