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

In working closely with over thousands of families during the past six years, we have come to notice some myths on bilingualism, especially amongst 1st time parents. In fact, we have been asked about these almost daily!

Before we begin to debunk these myths, let us first define bilingualism and language acquisition. Language acquisition is made up of two major parts: oracy (listening and speaking) and literacy (reading and writing). The goal of language acquisition is to understand and communicate with others.

Every parent wants their child 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 year 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 does research show it won’t confuse children, research also indicates average exposure time a child needs is 2-3 hours per day. 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.

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 loads of speeches, and when they were born, their hearing senses were constantly absorbing all sounds around them. As they began to develop their tongue muscle, they were typically ready to make sounds and speak words between 8 to 12 months old. Essentially, all the languages exposed to children before 5 years of age can be thought of as native languages and there can be as many as possible.

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

Possibly. 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 are 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 their framework of the world and knowledge system in that targeted language. We have seen young children who are absolutely capable of learning and conversing with an English-speaker as well as a Chinese language speaker.

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 end up mixing words together as well mixing up both Chinese and English words in a sentence. When this happens, don’t worry. Simply give them the equivalent vocabulary in each language.

If you are introducing a new language to your child, expose them to it for about 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?

As with the above, the answer is no. 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 your child’s fluency and literacy level is 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 you go, and it will be a process but one that continually improves.

After debunking these myths regarding Bilingualism and Language Acquisition, you may hopefully have a greater grasp of how to develop bilingualism in your child. We will also have part 2 to discuss other problems related to this topic in order for you to understand more about the golden window of language exposure for your child.

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