Bilingualism is on the rise!

Data from the census bureau for every year since 1980 has been analyzed in a recent article in Psychology Today and shows a remarkable increase in the number of bilinguals in the United States. This could be due to a number of factors. New immigrants arriving and learning to speak English become bilingual. Second generation children are also often taught their ‘mother-tongue’ and will be bilingual as well.

Learning as a child

As anyone who has learned a language as an adult can attest, learning a new language is much easier as a child. Children are absorbing so much information about language as they develop anyway, they hardly notice the effort of learning two languages simultaneously.

Parents in the past have been cautioned against confusing their children with two languages, but more recent research show that the benefits far outweigh the cost. While vocabulary acquisition for a single language developed slightly later in bilingual children, the vocabulary across both languages often matched or exceeded that of their monolingual peers. Children may use words from both languages when speaking, or confuse the rules of one with the other as they learn new word. Karen Quintero, my assistant, told me years ago that her son was looking at the night sky when he was very young and said, look Mom, “la Moona”. Her boy was obviously mixing “moon” and “luna”.  

It has been shown that children raised in bilingual environments can even distinguish the two languages from infancy!

Strategies for Success

To promote bilingualism, the American Speech – Language – Hearing Association recommends reading books in both languages, learning and singing songs, watching television in both languages, and enrolling your child in bilingual camps or school programs.

Another simple way to ensure your child hears enough of their ‘second language’ is to ensure it is spoken as the primary language at home. A child in the US with Spanish-speaking parents will hear enough English during the day for that to become a dominant language. By speaking Spanish at home, they stand a better chance of becoming truly bilingual.

Research also shows that the key to raising bilingual children is to ensure as much exposure to both languages as possible. Each language will develop independently in relation to the amount the child hears it. Whether parents adhere to the one-parent-one-language rule or both speak in both languages, children will simply learn more of what they have the most exposure to.

Are you raising bilingual children? What strategies did you find to be most helpful? Let us know in the comments.