One in three people in the world grows up speaking more than one language. As the U.S. population diversifies, we should expect to see more of that here. Science refutes longstanding misconceptions that infants are confused or delayed by learning more than one language. In fact, the earlier children learn those languages, the easier it is for them to master them, says a panel of experts who joined an April 27th UnidosUS webinar on Latino infants and dual language acquisition.
“We know through research that 90% of brain development happens before age five and this time is critical to support bilingual development,” stated UnidosUS Board Member Maricela Garcia in her opening remarks.
As an immigrant mother, Garcia successfully raised her own children to be bilingual. As the CEO of the UnidosUS Affiliate Gads Hill, each year she provides robust bilingual early educational programming to 3,500 children and their families, two-thirds of whom are Latino. Through this work, she shared with UnidosUS’s audience important findings about bilingual teaching strategies and the packaging of bilingual materials for families.
The webinar Growing up bilingual: How can we help babies learning two languages? is the third of a series hosted this year by UnidosUS’s new Latino Infant Initiative. That project began in the summer of 2021 with a $150,000 Pritzker Family Foundation grant to deepen UnidosUS’s engagement in Latino early learning. UnidosUS has now received additional Pritzker funding to build out a nationwide advocacy network for Latino infants and their families.
The webinar’s content was provided by Dr. Krista Byers-Heinlein, professor and research chair in Bilingualism and Open Science at the Infant Research Lab of Concordia University’s psychology department in Montreal, and her postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Laia Fibla. Dr. Byers-Heinlein was not able to join online that day, but Dr. Robert Stechuk, UnidosUS’s director of early childhood education programs, noted that she was one of the lead investigators in discovering that bilingual babies begin to differentiate between languages while in utero.
In the presentation, Fibla affirmed that children can hear during the last trimester of pregnancy and that the mother’s voice is the one that is most amplified because the two are connected.
“They don’t really hear words, but they hear the rhythm of the languages,” Fibla explained.
A native of Barcelona, Fibla learned both Spanish and its related romance language, Catalan, in addition to English. In cases like hers, where two languages are rhythmically or phonetically similar, it might take a young child a little longer to fully differentiate between each one. But as with all multilingual upbringings, there are many paths to mastering more than one language. Plus, Fibla noted that bilingualism does not cause language delays or disorders. If anything, bilingual therapy can help to improve those challenges. It all comes down to extensive, high-quality linguistic exposure.
“More experience means better language skills,” Fibla said.
Enough “High-Quality” Exposure
To get there, Concordia’s Infant Research Lab recommends exposing children to “high-quality” linguistic engagement for a minimum of 10% to 25% (or at least nine to 21 hours per week) for each language. This includes high-pitched melodic speech, known scientifically as child-directed speech; more conversational turns and questions, pointing, engaging, and even code-switching, the mixing of two languages to teach or explain a word.
This exposure can happen through activities such as games, arts and crafts, engaging with books, conversations over meals, storytelling, and even video chat apps, which prove to be more effective than other multimedia offerings such as TV and radio because the child has more personal interaction. And high quality does not mean the speaker needs to have perfect language fluency, a specific accent, or focus on one language at a time.
“It doesn’t really matter as long as they’re comfortable with what they’re doing,” Fibla said.
Caregivers and the Children They Engage
Caregivers, be they parents, grandparents, siblings, or teachers, play a key role in a child’s linguistic development, and the number and the kind of caregivers who engage with children is both circumstantial and cultural.
To explore this, Concordia compared the bilingual upbringings of children learning French and English in Montreal, a city where both languages are widely spoken, with those of children learning Spanish and English that researchers at Princeton University found through Latino families in New Jersey. The biggest contrast is that children in Montreal grow up in more nuclear families, so they spend the bulk of their time learning language from their parents, whereas Latino families are often extended, meaning children are exposed to a wider array of linguistic experiences. Despite these differences, both groups of children were equally able to learn new words in both of their languages.
“This variation is what makes each bilingual child unique,” affirmed Fibla.
Speech and Vocabulary
So how can caregivers know that children growing up with multiple languages are developing properly?
Fibla says it’s important to measure all the languages that the child speaks because, at a given age, bilingual or multilingual children likely know as many individual words as their monolingual peers, but that word count spans various languages. At the same time, she says speech errors, often referred to in children as “cute” speech errors, such as “I go-ed to the store” are common for all children, regardless of whether they speak more than one language.
Not only are they cute, but they’re also a good sign of children’s capabilities for language, says Fibla.
“It’s because they apply the rules before they learn the exception,” she explained, adding that in bilinguals, errors can also represent a transfer of knowledge from one language to another. For instance, in English the adjective comes before the noun, whereas in Spanish it usually comes after, so if a child says “t-shirt red,” rather than “red t-shirt,” this is simply a transfer of language rules and will clear up as the child has more exposure to their respective languages.
The webinar concluded with four top tips for promoting bilingualism. These tips included providing adequate high-quality interactions in each language; spending time with caregivers who speak each language; doing a language scan to measure the time a child engages with each language; and considering that a bilingual child’s abilities develop globally, meaning they will be uneven at times. Employing all the above tips will balance out their bilingual knowledge and skills, Fibla noted.
“For far too long, too many Latino families have been pressured to accept misinformation about their children’s development,” Stechuk told ProgressReport.co. “The research evidence, reviewed by the National Academies of Sciences, is conclusive: Children have the capacity to develop two languages. They should not be expected to give up their home language to learn English.”
Stechuk pointed out that the recent UnidosUS report, Latino Infants: A Continuing Imperative, summarizes research demonstrating a positive association between home language proficiency and reading in English.
“It’s important from a policy perspective that children be encouraged and supported to develop multilingual skills from infancy,” added Amalia Chamorro, UnidosUS’s director of education policy. “We will continue to see persistent opportunity gaps in the K-12 system for English learners unless policymakers recognize the assets of dual language learners, and invest in early interventions.”
For more information on best practices in raising bilingual children, please visit the following resources:
- Concordia Infant Research Laboratory
- Kletsheads, a podcast about bilingual children
- Kotoboo, a comic with science-based information about bilingualism and childhood development
- NYU LEARN Lab’s Divertidos Tips
- UnidosUS Topic Brief: Are Children Confused by Two Languages?
- UnidosUS’s latest report, Latino Infants: A Continuing Imperative
-Author Julienne Gage is an UnidosUS consultant.