Two is better than one: dispelling myths about bilingualism in childhood

The United States is becoming more diverse every day. It’s nearly impossible to walk along the streets of any major city in America and not hear another language spoken. Texas is a prime example of this growing diversity. A 2015 survey using date from the US Census Bureau found that 35.4% of Texans speak a language other than English at home, and 83.3% of those people speak Spanish at home1. Some parents, however, are resistant to teaching their children Spanish at a young age because they believe teaching a child two languages at once will confuse them and possibly cause a language delay. These beliefs are myths, and it’s a pediatrician’s job to dispel them.

Here’s a common scenario: a mom who speaks both English and Spanish comes in with her 2-year-old son and when asked how many words he knows she nervously answers “He only knows 15 words in English, and I know he’s supposed to know at least 50, does this mean that he has a speech delay?” An informed answer needs additional information: how many words does he know in Spanish? If you combine the total amount of words the child knows in both languages, you will often find that he/she is in fact on track.

Along the same lines, bilingualism does not predispose children to having language delays and bilingual children with specific language impairments, ASD, or Down Syndrome do not have more challenges with speech than their monolingual counterparts2. In addition, what some parents perceive as language ‘confusion’ might actually be a phenomenon called code mixing, which occurs when a child mixes languages within the same sentence2. Think about it: a 2-year-old doesn’t have a large vocabulary yet to work with, so if he/she doesn’t know a word in one language it only makes sense to use the word that he/she does know in the other language. No studies have shown that code mixing affects the ability to distinguish between two languages or to learn an individual language more fully. 

Research has shown the advantages of bilingualism. Being fluent in at least two languages improves executive control, or the “ability to carry out goal-directed behavior using complex mental processes and cognitive abilities”2,3. Specifically, it improves inhibition, attention switching, and working memory, understood as improving self-control, multi-tasking, and short-term memory needed to complete daily tasks. Adult studies have shown that bilingualism may even be protective against the effects of cognitive aging2-4.

More recent studies have shown that bilingualism can lead to enhanced social understanding. The exact physiology behind these benefits is not completely understood, but it may be related to the fact that managing two languages requires using brain regions not usually used for language processing.  This exercises the brain and provides opportunities
for new connections and growth.

What is the best way for a child to learn two languages? First, the earlier a child learns another language, the easier it will be because of the immense plasticity of a child’s brain. This allows it to learn two languages just as well as it learns one. Better language acquisition occurs if it is simultaneous versus sequential, meaning it is preferential to teach a child two languages at once rather than one at a time. Some parents might choose to individually speak one language so that the child gets an equal amount of exposure, and while equal exposure is ideal, it is not essential for successful language acquisition2. Rather than focus on equality, parents should simply focus on maximizing the volume and variety of words their child hears.

What can pediatricians do to encourage bilingualism in children? Most importantly, pediatricians need to educate parents early on in the child’s life and dispel any myths that could deprive the child of precious exposure time. This is especially critical in the toddler years when
talking about language development at well-child checks. Pediatricians should also educate parents on the benefits of bilingualism. Clinics can provide Spanish children’s books in addition to English books to provide parents with another opportunity to expose their child to language. Our communities are becoming more diverse by the day, and as pediatricians we need to ensure that misinformation does not prevent parents from passing on what is often a crucial aspect of cultural identity: language.

Sources

  1. Bilingualism in Texas: The Perryman Group. Bilingualism in Texas | The Perryman Group. https://www.perrymangroup.com/publications/column/2016/10/24/bilingualism-in-texas/. Published October 24, 2016. Accessed January 21, 2020.
  2. Byers-Heinlein K, Lew-Williams C. Bilingualism in the Early Years: What the Science Says. Learn Landsc. 2013;7(1):95–112.
  3. Bialystok E, Craik FI, Luk G. Bilingualism: consequences for mind and brain. Trends Cogn Sci. 2012;16(4):240–250. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2012.03.001
  4. Bilingual Effects in the Brain. National Institutes of Health. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/bilingual-effects-brain. Published April 29, 2016. Accessed January 17, 2020.

Cristina Saez, M.D.

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