“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?