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Why Parents Should Raise Bilingual Children

With globalization on the rise, deciding to raise bilingual children can provide many benefits to their lives in the future and give them a head-start when they enter the workforce. According to the 2011 Census of Population, 20% of Canadians spoke at least two languages. It is also estimated that over 50% of the world population speaks at least two languages. 

Deciding whether or not you want to raise your child to be bilingual can be a difficult decision. Many parents have fears in regard to potential learning delays or confusion their child may face, especially parents without personal experience with a second language themselves. However, this article will put those concerns to rest and discuss some of the many reasons why parents should raise bilingual children. 

When to start the process?

Most adults can relate to having a hard time learning new languages, while kids seemingly soak up languages like sponges. Well, this isn’t just in your head! Let’s dive a bit deeper into the complexities of learning languages.

People are born with the innate ability to learn languages, and babies can detect different languages before they even learn to speak. The critical phase where language is easily acquired takes place very early on in our lives. Many researchers believe this phase is from newborn to puberty where the brain is still high in plasticity, however, this range is an estimate because children can not be purposely deprived of language acquisition for experimental purposes.

By adulthood, the brain has changed significantly. Procedural memory, a type of implicit long-term memory that enables people to perform tasks and actions without conscious thought, isn’t as strong anymore. Declarative memory has to be used to learn the language instead, which is a type of explicit memory involving the memorization of facts that requires conscious thought. 

In other words, this means that the earlier you learn a second language, the more your brain will treat it like a first language. This means that the younger a child is when they begin learning a new language, the more automatic the process of absorbing and recalling information and linguistic structures will be.

Do bilingual children perform worse in school?

It is a common belief and myth that bilingual kids struggle in school. So why do they seem to have difficulty? A bilingual child should have roughly the same number of words in their vocabulary as a peer the same age. For example, a monolingual, English-speaking three year old may know around 500 words,  whereas a bilingual, English and Spanish speaking three year old may know around the same number of words, but they will know around 250 in English and 250 in Spanish. This is why bilingual children occasionally mix up their words and use words from both languages in a single sentence. 

This does mean that they are susceptible to experiencing  slight language delay and may start speaking fluently slightly later than their peers. However, this will not be a problem for them in the long term. Bilingual kids should be easily able to catch up to their peers linguistically while still in their childhood years.

Non linguistic benefits when you raise bilingual children

You may not realize it, but bilingualism isn’t just about learning more than one language. When you raise bilingual children, they will benefit in many other areas as well.

The first major benefit is the effect bilingualism has on the child’s executive function. Executive control is the set of skills that allows us to manage our thought processes and behaviour effectively. This includes control over attention and inhibition. Bilinguals have superior executive control compared to their monolingual peers. They will often outperform monolinguals in tasks that require an individual to ignore distracting, task-irrelevant information. 

Another benefit when you raise bilingual children is their heightened ability to understand the perspectives of others. Studies have consistently shown that young children struggle with something called “theory of mind.” In psychology, theory of mind is the ability to perceive and understand the mental states of others, such as their intentions, desires, and knowledge. Young children tend to be egocentric, only being able to understand their own perspective. However, bilingual children have an easier time changing their focus from their own perspective to the perspectives of others.

Why do these effects occur? When a child switches between languages, they are practicing controlling their attention, making it easier for them to focus their attention on tasks. They are also practicing suppression of irrelevant information. This makes it easier for them to focus on specific tasks or ideas and ignore extraneous information.

Education options to raise bilingual children  

A child’s earliest exposure to language will most likely come from their parents, or their primary caregivers. Some parents will try a “one parent, one language” method. This is where each parent will exclusively speak a different language to their child. For example, the mother will speak English, and the father will speak Mandarin. 

Another method parents try is to pretend the parent who speaks the minority language (minority referring to the language used less frequently in the environment, for example, Spanish in Japan) does not understand the majority language (the language used more frequently) to encourage the use of the minority language. 

Notwithstanding the fact that there is almost always a majority and minority language, parents may opt for private language tutors or after school programs for their children. In formal education, schools offer a variety of programs for parents seeking to raise bilingual children that introduce different amounts of exposure to each language. 

Additionally, there are some key terms that parents seeking to raise bilingual children should be knowledgable of, which include:

  • One-way immersion – Only one language is taught
  • Two way immersion – Roughly 50/50 of each language is used
  • Developmental bilingual education – Students are taught in English and their heritage language
  • Transitional bilingual education – Students transition from their heritage language to the majority language; usually a short program, only 1-2 years early in school

Author: Hillary Lee