Bilingual Bebé

“How many words do you think he can say?”, I asked, as I do for all 2 year olds, at a recent well child visit.  The mom’s eyes gleamed proudly, “at least 50 I think” and then her face dropped, “but they’re mostly in Spanish.”

In my diverse practice well over half of the families speak a language other than English at home.  And, the above is a common scenario- apparent disappointment or shame that their young child prefers that language to English, or speaks a mixture of both.  I have made it my mission to dispute the notion that speaking two or more languages at an early age is somehow a disadvantage, and I am really happy to see so many recent studies that back me up.

As recently as the 1990’s physicians routinely told parents of bilinguals to expect that their child might start speaking late, what we call “expressive language delay”.  I still hear this idea put forth in social circles occasionally.  Luckily, however, the word is starting to get out that this just isn’t true.  The Center for Applied Linguistics, in their excellent online digest regarding this topic, summarize the research showing that bilingual and monolingual kids meet major language milestones at similar times.  Parents also worry that infants and toddlers hearing more than one language at home may have “language confusion”.  To the contrary, using words from more than one language in the same conversation, “code-switching”, is actually a sign of adeptness with more than one linguistic system.

Instead of being a disadvantage, we are finding it may actually be an advantage to be bilingual.  A recent New York Times article cites a study that found that bilingual kids keep certain neural pathways open and “flexible” for a longer period of time, and another that showed that these kids have “precocious development of executive function.”  This means that bilingual children are flexible in areas other than just language.  They more easily learn different ways to solve problems.

As the word gets out, more US parents are raising their children with the goal that they be multilingual.  We still lag behind Europe and other areas of the world in terms of achieving this goal- more on this in future posts- but at least we’re getting past the myths and, I hope, helping parents to be proud of their children’s early language development, in whatever language it may be.  Of course, I may be biased- my 20 month old speaks beautiful “espanglish”.

What is your family’s experience with early language development?  What resources have you found to help guide you?

7 thoughts on “Bilingual Bebé

  1. Yep, my babe speaks Portuglish very well. She does seem to know to switch (when she knows the word in both languages): Portuguese for me, English for most everybody else. But for the most part it is pure mix-mash.

  2. Our daughter speaks English, but understands everything in German as well. While we wish she’d speak more German, it’s great to know she understands it. And hopefully I’ll get better about only speaking German when my husband is home, so she hears more German. It sure is neat knowing she has a Mother-tongue AND a Father-tongue.

    It’s great to read that there really isn’t a delay for bilingual children!

    • At 21 months our son is still hearing mostly Spanish, and seems to be speaking both English and Spanish equally. But, we do worry about maintaining his Spanish once he enters a primarily English school setting. Multilingualliving has some great resources and ideas about encouraging the use of the non-dominant language. Thanks for reading and Alles gute!

  3. Hola Heidi! I am Mariela, one of Diego’s friends from when he lived @ the Crossings in Madison. I found your argument about bilingual kids interesting and as you might remember I am also biased, since my 6 month old daughter, Elena Paz, is being raised immersed in two “worlds”. Interestingly enough, this morning I was thinking about the fact that I want EP to be surrounded by Spanish speaking people (I am extremely proud of my culture with all its ups and downs), but even though Madison is culturally diverse, we do not have a lot of connections with Latinos….We don’t even go to a mass in español! I have to say that thanks for Skype, because we can talk with my parents (almost everyday…..), so she is getting all that from them and of course from me. Thanks for the great resources you offer in your blog.

    • Hola Mariela- thanks for reading! This is a theme that we talk about a lot at home. It is really important to us as well that our little guy is surrounded by diverse cultures and many people who speak Spanish. Depending on where you live this can be challenging and takes a lot of dedication on the part of parents. I’m sure EP will thank you for all of your efforts later in life when being bilingual will be such an advantage for her- opening new worlds and allowing her to speak with friends and relatives. Buena suerte and I hope we can keep sharing our experiences as the little ones get older.

  4. I grew up in a bilingual home and am raising my son the same way. To this day I am so grateful to have had this opportunity and experience in my life. And am glad to offer it to my children. I wish more people would appreciate that skill set. Language not only opens the door to communication but also to cultures, ideas, religions, literature, etc. It really adds a whole other dimension to my life. Thanks for sharing this important piece!

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