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Growing Up Bilingual

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Q: We speak both Spanish and English at home. Is this going to confuse my child's language development?

A: In the United States today, many families speak more than one language in the home, or primarily speak a language other than English. In the latter case, English is often learned simultaneously, through community interactions, or as a second language in the preschool and later school years.

Research on the growth and development of the brain after birth shows that it is precisely the very first years of a child's life in which the sounds particular to a language are acquired, and that children easily pick up the sounds of multiple languages when exposed to them. This "window of opportunity" actually closes around school age; hence the presence of an accent when we try to learn a second language later in life. Because of the way our brains have developed, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to make certain sounds native to a language (such as the rolled "rr" in Spanish). So exposure to a second language early on doesn't confuse children — in fact, they need and depend upon exposure to the language(s) for successful acquisition.

That said, research does point to differences in oral language vocabulary acquisition in children who are monolingual versus children who are bilingual or multilingual. First of all, the more words children between birth and four years old actually hear and use in the home, the greater their vocabulary banks will be. It appears that in bilingual children, these vocabulary banks are the same size as they are in monolingual children, but they are roughly split between the two languages. Thus, a Spanish bilingual child may actually know fewer words in English, as his "word bank" is divided between English and Spanish. By school age, bilingual children tend to catch up in both languages when they have had strong and consistent language experiences in the home and community. Therefore, it is quite possible that they can attain an English-language word bank equal to that of their monolingual peers when they enter kindergarten.

All this does not mean that such children are confused by learning multiple languages. What it does mean is that we need to make sure that bilingual children have rich oral language experiences in the preschool and early elementary school years — that focus both on maintaining the native language spoken in the home while enriching the growing exposure to English. The differences in English vocabulary knowledge in monolingual and bilingual children has then been found to be greatly minimized. Furthermore, all children with such a rich foundation in oral language are then better prepared for the acquisition of written language — specifically in learning to read.

About the Author

Susan Canizares holds a PhD in language and literacy development.

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