Children who grow up speaking more than one language also develop other skills faster than their peers
We monolingual Brits are always impressed by anyone who can speak a second language. In huge swathes of the world, however, it is entirely natural: India, Africa, countries of the former Soviet Union, Canada, parts of Wales - to name a few.
Children of first generation immigrants anywhere in the world quickly learn to switch languages and those of us who have moved to France with small children watch with awe and envy as they start to babble as fluently in French as English.
Children who speak more than one language before the age of around ten years old not only absorb languages like little sponges rather than having to “learn” them, but they will grow up naturally bilingual. After this age, you may learn to speak a language 100% fluently but you won’t be talking “like a native”.
All of us are born with the innate ability to make any sound we want, from the French ‘r’ to the Welsh ‘ll’ or the Russian soft consonants (which my husband despairs of my ever pronouncing perfectly). But, the brain being a highly efficient tool, if certain sounds are never made it closes down the pathways which allow us to make them naturally. So, after about ten years old, you are learning to pronounce a foreign language by imitation or mimicry - which some do better than others - rather than exploiting a natural ability to make the sounds.
Once upon a time, many myths surrounded the raising of bilingual children such as: learning two languages confuses a child and lowers their intelligence; you should learn one language properly before starting a second; a child who learns two languages won’t feel properly at home in either, they have to translate from the weaker to the stronger language; they have split personalities.
the advantages extend beyond language
Today, such suggestions are largely dismissed as more and more research highlights the unexpected advantages enjoyed by the bilingual child. Indeed, in middle class Britain, families are frantically enrolling their children in toddlers’ French groups or hiring foreign au pairs to try and give children the benefits of bilingualism.
It doesn’t matter which languages a child speaks (although French and English are obviously globally useful languages) as the advantages of bilingualism extend way beyond the ability to speak more than one language. Bilingual children not only find it easier to learn further languages but their ability to understand the “essence” of language means they perform generally better in rhyming and general language awareness tests, says Li Wei, Professor of applied linguistics at Newcastle University and an editor of the International Journal of Bilingualism.
Furthermore, bilingual children develop problem-solving skills earlier than children who speak only one language and comprehend written languages faster and learn to read more easily, according to the Canadian psychologist Ellen Bialystock who spent over twenty years studying how language affects learning in young children.
Monolingual children looking at this picture of a cat look to the picture to help them spell out cat. Bilingual children, however, have to look at the word to find out if this is a cat or a chat. They are twice as quick to recognise words without the aid of pictures because they understand that the meaning is in the word. Bilingual children also develop problem-solving skills earlier than monolingual children, says Bialystok. “They have the ability to “edit” their attention because they have to block out one language while working in another. Where you pay attention is one of the crucial aspects of overall development.”
This skill puts bilingual children a year ahead of their peers when it comes to working out problems that contain misleading information. In the diagram (below), if you ask which apartment block houses the higher number of flats, monolingual children will choose the taller building while bilingual children will (correctly) choose the lower block.
Growing up bilingual is huge fun and the more you make bilingualism seem natural and unremarkable the easier it is for children to enjoy it:
- Don’t make children do something they don’t want - show off their French to English visitors, for example, which embarrasses them and makes them aware of being “different” or take endless extra coaching in one or other language. (However, if you want them to read and write, rather than just speak, fluently in two languages you will need to help them with the language they are not learning at school.)
- Similarly, don’t stop them doing what they do want. If they are learning to read French at school, don’t stop them reading in English “until they have mastered the French”. Read English bedtime stories at home and if they want to look over your shoulder and spell out the letters, let them. Be guided by the child’s curiosity.
- Children growing up bilingual from birth may start speaking slightly later than other children; don’t worry about it - all children develop at different rates.
- Children will happily speak as many languages as seem relevant to their lives but it is hard to impose bilingualism where children don’t see the benefits. For example, mine spoke English and Russian from birth, were schooled for five years in Welsh before moving to France. English, French and Russian (when Moscow relatives visit) are part of their lives so they use them unquestioningly; Welsh no longer is - keeping it going would mean forcing them.
- Multilingual children like order: to speak the relevant language to the correct person so don’t try talking to them in French to help them (or for them to help you!). As a baby, my son would burst into tears if, in Russian company, I spoke Russian to him: “mummy speak English”.
- Don’t worry if children occasionally mix languages. This is unlikely to be because they can’t tell them apart but because a word from one language has slipped into the other without them being aware of it, a slip of the tongue or because they are switching rapidly between languages.