7 Powerful Reasons Why Bilingualism in Children Matters
Bilingualism is simply the ability to use two languages in everyday life.
Bilingualism in children and adults is common—and increasing in many parts of the world. In fact, approximately one-third of the population is bilingual or multilingual.
Simultaneous bilinguals learn two languages from birth, whereas sequential bilinguals learn a first language followed by a second language—whether as children, teens, or adults.
While a bilingual’s two languages do influence each other to a certain degree, in many ways their developmental paths are independent. However, having a dominant language is normal and natural for bilinguals. It is rare for an individual to be equally proficient in both languages.
Most bilinguals have greater proficiency in one language over the other, as the dominant language is often influenced by the majority language spoken where the individual lives. Age, circumstance, education, social network, employment, and other factors may change an individual’s dominant language, as well.
Despite its many proven benefits, some controversy does exist with regard to bilingualism in children.
The Controversy Around Bilingualism in Children
Some pediatricians, even today, recommend against exposing children to two languages due to the complicated history of positive and negative press about instilling bilingualism in children while they’re growing up.
However, myths and misconceptions—rather than scientific findings—tend to serve as the foundation of these attitudes against bilingualism in children. Many parents’ frequently asked questions include:
- Are bilingual children confused?
- Does bilingualism make children smarter?
- Is it best for each person to speak only one language with a bilingual child?
- Should parents avoid mixing languages together?
- Is earlier better?
- Are bilingual children more likely to have language difficulties, delays, or disorders?
I’ll address some of these issues in this blog post, and I recommend reading this study for in-depth yet clear, science-based answers to these questions.
Bilingualism in Children: Cognitive Development Advantages
Simply put, bilingual people of all ages require substantial brain power to be able to comprehend and communicate in two languages. As a result, bilingualism improves the cognitive function linked to critical thinking and complex problem solving.
Research has shown that bilingual people are generally more creative and better at planning than monolinguals. Other benefits that bilingual children accrue include:
- understanding math concepts more readily
- solving word problems more easily
- developing strong thinking skills
- using logic
- remembering and making decisions
- thinking about language, and
- learning other languages.
One study finds that bilinguals perform marginally better than monolinguals on tasks that involve switching between activities and inhibiting previously learned responses. Evidence even exists that certain aspects of a bilingual infant’s memory are more robust than their monolingual peers, such as generalizing information from one event to another.
7 Fundamental Reasons Why Bilingualism in Children Matters
Not only do bilingual children benefit cognitively, but we also have 7 more excellent reasons to learn about! Keep reading to discover more about why bilingualism in children matters.
1. Basic Linguistic Benefits
Bilingual children know more than one language. This basic fact impacts them positively when they travel throughout life. Bilingualism in children’s life experience enables them to
- maintain a deeper connection to family culture and history
- communicate with extended family members (like a grandparent who does not speak English), and
- more easily forge friendships with people from different backgrounds.
Additionally, bilingualism is a major advantage when it comes to seeking employment in adulthood. Globally, bilingual and biliterate adults have more job opportunities than monolingual adults.
2. Better Social Understanding
Bilingual children develop better communications skills and are more likely to empathise with others. Multiple studies suggest that bilinguals show advantages when it comes to social understanding. Because bilinguals can make friends in multiple languages and cultures, they gain more opportunities to meet new people and try out different hobbies and activities.
Bilinguals must navigate a complex social world where each person they encounter has different language knowledge. Bilingual preschoolers seem to have more enhanced skills than monolinguals with regard to understanding others’ perspectives, thoughts, desires, and intentions. Young bilingual children are more sensitive to certain features of communication such as tone of voice.
3. Bilingualism in Children is Family-Specific
Many people believe that each parent should speak to their bilingual child in the parent’s own native language. However, this one-person-one-language approach is outdated. Researchers have found that it is neither necessary nor sufficient for successful bilingual acquisition. The fact is, children who hear both languages from the same bilingual parent can successfully learn two languages.
What’s more important than the source of the foreign language is the level of exposure a bilingual child has to that language. Bilingual children who hear more of a particular language will learn more words and grammar and more efficiently process information in that language. Bilingual parents thus need to provide their children with sufficient exposure to the target language.
Many families find that flexible use of the two languages, without fixed rules, leads to balanced exposure and positive interactions. My own family follows this technique. I’m a native English speaker and my husband is a native Spanish speaker, and we both converse with our 7-year-old daughter in both languages. She is already able to help correct my husband’s English pronunciation, and I acknowledge the fact that her Spanish is more natural and fluid than mine.
Each family is unique. The language proficiency and preference of each family member, along with their community situation, will dictate how the family uses the two languages on a daily basis. Parents must regularly appraise what language(s) their child is hearing at home, at school, and in other venues and be open to adjusting language use as needed.
4. Code Mixing and Conceptual Vocabulary
Code mixing is the use of elements from two different languages in the same sentence or conversation (for example, “Spanglish”). It is a normal part of being a bilingual and interacting with other bilingual speakers. In some communities, code mixing is an important part of being bilingual and being part of a bilingual community. For example, code mixing is the norm across many Latino (Spanish-English) communities in the U.S.
Although bilingual children usually know fewer words in each of their languages than do monolingual learners, this apparent difference disappears when you calculate bilingual children’s “conceptual vocabulary” across both languages.
5. Earlier is Better
Not surprisingly, the evidence points to significant advantages for simultaneous bilinguals (learning two languages at the same time) compared to sequential bilinguals (learning one language after another). They typically have better accents, a wider vocabulary, better grammatical proficiency, and stronger language processing skills.
For example, people who learn Spanish as a second language may struggle to master Spanish grammatical gender—“Is it la casa or el casa?”. Meanwhile, people who learn Spanish and English from birth display impressive ease in using correct grammatical gender.
The concept of a “critical period” for language acquisition is another controversy in this field. This is the idea that humans are not capable of mastering a new language after a certain age. Experts disagree as to whether a critical period even exists, and those who do support the idea disagree about when this critical period occurs. (Proposals range from age 5 to 15.) While younger children seem to become more “native-like” in the long-term, older children may pick up vocabulary, grammar, and academic language more easily in the initial stages of language learning.
Research on bilingualism in children and second language learning does converge on the idea that earlier is better. Even if no sharp decline in learning ability occurs at any point in development, language learning abilities do decline incrementally with age. Nevertheless, for motivated students, it is never too late to learn a new language.
6. Heighten Cultural Intelligence and Open-Mindedness
Bilingual children develop a strong sense of their cultural identity, which can improve their mental health and establish a more grounded sense of self worth. Spanish learners, for example, are more likely to have an interest in Spanish-speaking cultures. Bilingual children often have an inherent interest in museums, cultural events, and ethnic festivals that monolingual children may not share.
In addition, bilingual children are more open-minded, which is an essential quality in our increasingly polarized world. Learning about other cultures through language helps them cultivate the key skills of tolerance, compassion, and empathy for others.
7. Stay Ahead of the Curve
We want to give our kids something extra to enrich their life experience and better equip them for their future journey into adulthood. Bilingualism is without doubt an amazing tool for developing your child’s full potential.
Currently in the United States, approximately 21% of school-age children (ages 5-17) speak a language other than English at home. In other words, one in five Americans speaks a foreign language—and for more than half of those, that language is Spanish. These numbers are projected to increase in the coming years.
As our world becomes more global and interconnected, the ability to communicate effectively in Spanish will only continue to grow in importance.
Support Bilingualism in Children
To promote successful bilingual development, parents raising bilingual children should empower their children with ample opportunities to hear and speak both of their languages. As children grow, interacting with monolingual speakers is an important way to motivate ongoing language use, especially for minority languages not widely spoken in the community. At Homeschool Spanish Academy, we provide the perfect resource for bilingual kids who need regular exposure to native Spanish. Sign up for a free trial class today with our native-speaking teachers from Guatemala to support and enhance your child’s bilingual journey.
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