As a bilingual child myself, this topic hits close to home as it defined my childhood as well as my brother’s. About fifteen years ago my parents decided to immigrate to the United States leaving our home behind. My brother and I are five years apart, me being the oldest, so our experiences of the adjustment period were wildly different – his (age 9) smooth and mine (age 13) not so smooth. Eventually, the both of us will be faced with the same question – Do we raise our children bilingual or not? On the one hand, speaking more than one language opens more doors, but creates difficulties for some children when it comes to speech development, communication skills and social skills. At this point, the jury is still out, as neither one of us has to decide at the moment, yet it is just a matter of time till we will have to make a decision.
The below article has been written by me for a journalism course and provides a closer look at the pros and cons of bilingualism in children.
Until a few centuries ago, knowledge of foreign languages was a privilege available to the high society only. Today the situation is completely different – knowing multiple languages is not only common, but often required by the competitive job market. In immigrant families, children will naturally speak two languages regardless of their social status. The statistics provided by the U.S. Census Bureau suggest that 20% of first graders speak another language at home other than English, occasionally two other languages, depending on the heritage.
Additionally, families who only know English, often choose to expose their children to a second language pretty much from birth by hiring nannies who only speak Spanish, French or any other language the family chooses. According to general statistics children who are brought up to be bilingual from early age excel in school and score higher on standard IQ tests. “My kids are already bilingual, they speak Russian at home and English at school, but when my oldest son was 2 we hired a French nanny, we figured it won’t hurt,” said Dennis Tinov*, a father of two teenage boys. “Now, they fluently know 3 languages, although they mostly speak English”.
Studies show that it is better to introduce other languages to kids at an early age because children’s brains are still developing and they are able to observe the new words and phrases with ease, as opposed to teenage kids and adults. A speech pathologist, who works with elementary school kids, Helen Ginburg* said: “In my opinion, learning two languages at the same time as a small child should not interfere with language development. Research shows that when children learn two languages simultaneously, up to the age of 12, they have no problem learning either language”.
Additional studies have shown that bilingual children have a larger vocabulary, develop better memory capabilities and analytical skills. However, children who speak two languages from the beginning often start talking later than their peers, who know only one language, as their vocabulary in each language is smaller and communication skills may be insufficient. Typically, in bilingual families the first words a child says come out at the same age as of other children, but further development of speech may be delayed. According to the Encyclopedia of Language and Literacy Development, delayed speech development in bilingual kids is still within norms of speech development and is not viewed as a problem. However, experts point out that in bilingual families’ children often show signs of general underdevelopment of speech, such as grammatical errors with sentence structures, connective speech and small vocabulary. This may happen because it is difficult for a small child to figure out rules and norms in two languages at the same time.
Elica*, age tree and a half, speaks Ukrainian at home with her family, meanwhile everything else around her, like cartoons and toys, is in English. At this age she should be able to construct full 5 word sentences and should be able to express her wants and needs in clear phrases, but this is not the case for her. When she is thirsty she demands “juice” or “mik” [milk], when she is hungry she says “nyam-nyam” and when her DVD player is not working she screams “no disc”, which also goes for anything else that doesn’t work. Her mother, Mila Betsky*, 26, knew that there might be difficulties when her daughter begins to speak, but also knew of the benefits that will come later. “I speak tree languages fluently Ukrainian, Russian and English”, she says, “and I want my daughter to be able to communicate with different people as well as I can, but right now it’s hard to understand what my daughter wants sometimes”.
Betsky recalls one of the many funny situations that happened due to her daughter’s knowledge of the two languages, either not very well. “We were at a playground and Elica started screaming “poop-poop!” and pointing at her belly. I replied to her “O.K. poop” and went back to reading, when one of the mothers next to me asked in shock “aren’t you going to change her?” then I realized the problem. In Ukrainian poop means bellybutton and that’s what my daughter was showing me – her bellybutton, she wasn’t saying that she has to go to the bathroom.” Betsky laughs while explaining how she then had to explain Ukrainian to the mother next to her, “I was so embarrassed at first, I didn’t want her to think I was letting my child sit there in dirty diapers”.
Recently Elica started going to an American daycare center and her communication skills have significantly improved. Just within a few months she went from saying “home!” to “are we home yet?” along with a few other solid phrases she picked up from other kids. “I know that an American daycare center will take her farther away from knowing Ukrainian, but at least she is able to express herself better now, I am sure it will all equal out in time,” said Elica’s mother.
Even though there are thorns in the road for a bilingual baby, such as late speech development and general language confusion, the benefits outweigh the risks. After all, numerous studies have shown that bilingualism helps children develop superior reading and writing skills, along with better analytical, social and academic skills than their monolingual peers. According to the Multilingual Children’s Association, if a child shows signs of delayed speech development it will only be on temporary basis: “Your child may be slightly delayed compared to monolingual peers going into the third year, but you’ll notice the gap closing quickly at the tail end”.
*Note: The names have been partially changed to preserve the privacy of the children involved in the article.
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