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Bilingual Language Development

Myths and Facts

Megan Romanczyk, M.S., CCC-SLP

Myth: Bilingual children have delayed expressive and receptive vocabulary development.

Fact: Bilingual/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 (Paradis, Genesee, & Crago, 2010; Petitto & Holowka, 2002). Apparent differences in expressive vocabulary can be explained by bilingual children’s conceptual vocabulary across languages (Marchman et al., 2010). Conceptual vocabulary refers to the number of concepts that a child expresses across their languages. For example, if a child who speaks Spanish and English uses the words dad, padre, mom, gato, and perro, they would have a conceptual vocabulary of 4 words (i.e., they communicate concepts of dad, mom, cat, and dog, regardless of which language they are using). Without calculating the conceptual vocabulary, this child may be assumed to only know 2 words. Research shows that if you calculate the conceptual vocabulary, multilingual children know the same number of words as monolingual children (Pearson, Fernández, & Oller, 1993; Pearson & Fernández, 1994).

Myth: Speaking more than one language will confuse a child.

Fact: Speaking more than one language will not confuse children. Code mixing, a normal part of bilingual development, is sometimes misunderstood as language confusion (Pearson, 2008). Code mixing, or communicating with the vocabulary of multiple languages within the same sentence or conversation, is a natural part of communication for multilingual children and adults alike (Comeau, Genesee, & Lapaquette, 2003). Young multilingual children may code-mix to more effectively communicate in contexts in which they cannot quickly retrieve the appropriate word in one language and therefore borrow the word from another language (Lanza, 2004). For example, a child who speaks Mandarin at home and English at school may primarily communicate with their teachers in English but mix in Mandarin words to supplement their developing English vocabulary. This is a positive indicator for language development rather than a sign of confusion. There is also evidence that children’s early code mixing adheres to predictable grammar-like rules, which are largely similar to the rules that govern adults’ code mixing (Paradis, Nicoladis, & Genesee, 2000).

Myth: Bilingual language development can cause confusion for individuals with developmental disorders.

Fact: Bilingual children with specific language impairments (Paradis, Crago, Genesee, & Rice, 2003), Down syndrome (Kay-Raining Bird et al., 2005), and autism spectrum disorders (Peterson, Marinova-Todd, & Mirenda, 2012) are not more likely to experience additional delays or challenges compared to monolingual children with these impairments.

Myth: The “one-person-one-language” strategy is better than other approaches to bilingual language development.

Fact: 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: one-person-one-language; one language at home, one language outside; or alternating days of the week, or mornings/afternoons. Some parents prefer to speak only one language with their child, even if they are able to speak the other (Lanza, 2004), to ensure exposure to a particular language. Other families find that flexible use of the two languages, without fixed rules, leads to balanced exposure and positive interactions. The most important takeaway is for caregivers to use the language, or languages, that they are most proficient in and comfortable with to ensure quality interactions with their child.

Source: Bilingualism in the Early Years: What the Science Says

Do you want to learn more about bilingual language development? Our SLPs have compiled a list of some of our favorite blogs for further reading:

2. Bilingual Language Development in Children:

6. Bilingual Language Development: Birth-4 Years Old

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