Mara Gulens
September 25

Single or Bilingual?: Second language learning
My Sweet Baby

In our bilingual, multicultural country, speaking two languages often seems the norm. But for many parents, passing on another language is fraught with anxiety: Won’t it be confusing? How do I make a second language stick? Will my kid’s vocabulary suffer?

Help or hindrance

Although it’s commonly believed that bilinguals have more language-learning issues, studies show that’s not the case; the incidence of language delay and disability is about 15 percent in both mono- and bilingual children.

Languages are acquired differently, however. Monolingual kids gather a greater single-language vocabulary earlier and expect each object to have one label (a stuffed teddy bear is a bear and can’t be an elephant). Bilingual kids have the same overall vocabulary size, but it’s divided across two languages, and presents itself in knowing more synonyms (mommy and maman, for instance).

A recent study from York University in Toronto found that six-year-old children who speak two different languages have a cognitive advantage and are better at abstract thinking, planning, initiating and inhibiting actions. Other studies have shown that bilingual kids have better listening and problem-solving skills, as well as greater cultural appreciation.

Pregnancy: start now

“If you’re bilingual, you can provide your child with a unique opportunity to start learning two languages from very early on,” says Dr. Janet Werker, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Babies are already listening to and learning about their native languages in utero and immediately after birth.

Furthermore, Werker demonstrates in her study that infants are interested in hearing all the languages learned while in the womb and can tell the difference when the language changes. 

Postpartum: keep talking

Even as they get older, babies aren’t confused by the languages spoken around them. “Babies can use a lot of different sources of information to keep their languages apart,” says Werker, pointing to oral and visual cues. “We’re well-prepared to learn one, two, or probably three languages.”

The key is to keep talking to baby in those languages in order to strengthen and retain them. Mom, dad, grandma and/or grandpa should communicate in their native language as much as possible, but parents should consider some kind of social outlet as well – be it a play group, daycare, language class, nanny or even books and videos.

If you can pass on another language, by all means do. It’s a simple yet lifelong gift that requires nothing more than talking to your child – something you already do.

[Originally published in My Sweet Baby]

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