Q: My husband and I disagree about whether to teach our biracial children both English and Spanish from a young age. Do you have an advice on this topic?
A: In a nutshell, teaching young children how to speak a second language is good for their minds!
Learning a second language does not cause language confusion, language delay or cognitive deficit, which have been concerns in the past.
In fact, studies conducted over a decade ago show that children who learn a second language can pay attention to tasks despite distractions better than children who know only one language. Developmental psychologists feel that this ability is important for later success in school.
Approximately 20% of children in the United States speak a language other than English at home, with Spanish as the most common non-English language. The research on the benefits of bilingualism is constantly growing. Becoming bilingual helps children maintain strong ties with their entire family, culture and community – key parts of a child developing his or her identity.
The most effective way to learn a second language, they say, is to put the young child in situations where the second language surrounds them, also called immersion learning. Children learning a second language in an immersion setting show the same success in learning grammar and sentence structure as children who speak one language.
Milestones of language development are the same in all languages. Most bilingual children speak their first words (i.e., mama, dada) by one year of age. By age two, most bilingual children can use two-word phrases such as “my ball” or “no juice.” These are the exact same developmental milestones as children who learn only one language.
A bilingual toddler might mix parts of a word from one language with parts from another language. While this might make it more difficult for others to understand the child’s meaning, it is not a reflection of abnormal or delayed development. The total number of words, adding the words from both languages the child is learning together, should be comparable to the number used by a child the same age who speaks one language.
Some parents are afraid that learning two languages will confuse your child. In fact, this is not true. Some bilingual children may mix grammar rules from time to time, or use words from both languages in the same sentence. An example of this is, “quiero mas juice” (I want more juice).
However, this is a normal part of bilingual language development and does not mean that your child is confused. Usually by age four, children can separate the different languages but might still blend or mix both languages in the same sentence on occasion. They will ultimately learn to separate both languages correctly.
There may be concern that bilingual children will have academic problems once they start school. It does make sense for parents to thoughtfully consider what school setting will best suit their bilingual child. The school setting that best suits bilingual children depends on the age of the child. Immersion in an English language-speaking classroom is the best approach for younger children who will be primarily English speaking. But this approach is less effective for older students. For example, older kids in high school who have been primarily Spanish speaking at home would be better served to get instruction in the language they know, while also learning English. It is worth the effort though, both for social and academic reasons. Research shows many academic advantages of being bilingual, including superior problem solving and multitasking skills, as well as increased cognitive flexibility.
You may wonder what is the best way to teach your child a second language, without undue stress or any unintended adverse effects. Here are some tips from experts in child development, linguistics and education:
1. Surround the child with more than one language through conversations and social groups using different languages; the earlier the better.
2. Maintain a home language when a second language is being learned outside the home.
3. Expose children to multilingual settings and give them plenty of opportunities to play with children who speak the second language.
4. Provide fun and interactive language-learning environments (e.g., music, dance and film) in both languages, and often with children of similar age.
5. Promote reading and storytelling in multiple languages.
And keep in mind, the earlier that a child learns a second language, the more likely the child will more quickly attain language proficiency, which opens up rich opportunities for connection and learning that will benefit your children throughout their lives.
Anjali Subbaswamy is a Pediatric Intensive Care Physician at UNM. Please send your questions to her at ASubbaswamy@salud.unm.edu