Multilingualism in the Early Years

Soledad Pina Molina
Head of Lower School




Parents who want to offer their children a multilingual education often wonder about the pros and contras of exposing their children to different languages, and how to best support language acquisition in their children so they become proficient speakers.

Multilingualism refers to the ability to use two or more languages in everyday life. Bilingualism is commoun with perhaps one in three people being bilingual or multilingual as using quotidianly two or more languages is a normal practice in some regions in all continents and increasingly in some communities due to global movements.

However, despite the prevalence of bilingualism, little scientific research has been conducted on the topic, particularly on the foundations of bilingual language learning in young children. Definitive answers to many questions are not yet available but with an accumulation of research studies over the last few decades, some of them can be partially answered.


Multilingualism myths

One of the biggest concerns that parents may have about raising children in a multilingual environment is that it will cause confusion. Except in the case of neurological disorders, fluently bilingual adults can speak whatever language they choose in the moment, and are clearly not confused.

Bilingual infants readily distinguish their two languages and show no evidence of confusion. By age 4 months they can tell even rhythmically similar languages like French and Spanish apart (Bosch & Sebastián-Gallés, 1997). However, by 8 months of age, only bilinguals are still sensitive to the distinction, while monolinguals stop paying attention to subtle variations in facial movements (Sebastián-Gallés, Albareda-Castellot, Weikum, & Werker, 2012 ) Instead of being confused, it seems that bilingual infants are sensitive to information that distinguishes their languages.

One misunderstood behaviour, which is often taken as evidence for confusion, is when bilingual children mix words from two languages in the same sentence. This is known as code mixing. In fact, code mixing is a normal part of bilingual development, and bilingual children actually have good reasons to code mix (B. Zurer Pearson, 2008).

So are multilingual children more likely to have language difficulties? The answer is no. Multilingual children are not more likely than monolingual children to have difficulties with language, to show delays in learning, or to be diagnosed with a language disorder (see Petitto&Holowka, 2002Paradis, Genesee, & Crago, 2010 ) Just like some monolingual children have a language delay or disorder, a similar proportion of bilinguals will have a language delay or disorder. Evidence that one bilingual child has a language difficulty, however, is not evidence that bilingualism leads to language difficulties in general.


Multilingualism benefits

There are obvious benefits of raising multilingual children: they will know multiple languages, which is important for travel, employment, speaking with members of one’s extended family, maintaining a connection to family culture and history, and making friends from different backgrounds. However, beyond obvious linguistic benefits, researchers have investigated whether bilingualism confers other non-linguistic advantages (Akhtar & Menjivar, 2012). It is easier now to find literature about this topic and books such as The Bilingual Edge (King & Mackey, 2009) explain the potential benefits of early bilingualism.

Several studies have suggested that multilinguals show certain advantages when it comes to social understanding. This is not surprising, as multilinguals must navigate a complex social world where different people have different language knowledge. For example, bilingual preschoolers seem to have somewhat better skills than monolinguals in understanding others’ perspectives, thoughts, desires, and intentions (Bialystok & Senman, 2004).

Bilinguals also show some cognitive advantages. In particular, bilinguals appear to perform better than monolinguals on tasks that involve switching between activities and inhibiting previously learned responses. Additionally, there is some evidence that bilingual infants are advantaged in certain aspects of memory, for example generalizing information from one event to a later event (Brito & Barr, 2012).


How can adults support the process

It is important to remember that children infants learn any language through listening and interacting with different speakers. Children need to have a lot of exposure to the sounds, words, and grammars of the languages that they will one day use. Both quality and quantity matter. High quality language exposure involves social interaction so provide opportunities to interact with multiple different speakers has been linked to vocabulary learning in multilingual children.

So what language strategies should parents use? The best answer is that parents should use whatever strategy promotes high-quality and high-quantity exposure to each of their child’s languages. This could include structured approaches such as using different languages as a function of person (one-person-one-language), place (one language at home, one language outside), or time (alternating days of the week, or mornings/afternoons).

Opting for an international education provides good opportunities for children to develop appropriately and consistently all the linguistic structures needed whilst providing the opportunities for the social interactions which consolidate the language acquisition.