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Children and Bilingualism

From: Let's Talk # 47



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American Speech- Language- Hearing Association


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Children and Bilingualism

According to the 1990 United States Census, one in seven or 31.8 million people speak a language other than English in their home. In the past, second generation children were encouraged to adopt the customs, culture, and language of what was identified as the majority culture. Today, with greater recognition and celebration of cultural differences, people are more likely to maintain and share their primary language with their children and to promote bilingualism as a reflection of ethnic pride and identity.

What is Bilingualism?

Different people use the term in different ways. For some, bilingualism means an equal ability to communicate in two languages. For others, bilingualism means the ability to communicate in two languages but with the possibility of greater skills in one language.

How Do I Teach My Child to be Bilingual?

There are different theories on the "best" way to teach a child to use two languages. Most researchers agree that a child who is exposed to two languages at an early age, and simultaneously, will naturally learn to use both languages.

Children can be expected to go through some periods of mixing the two languages and borrowing vocabulary to express ideas, sometimes within the same sentence. This occurs because vocabulary may exist in one language but not in the other. Or words from one language may convey a message that is not easily translated into the other language. A separation of the two languages will occur gradually. Children may also experiment with the two languages to create special effects or to express themselves in specific settings. For example, one language may be identified as less formal and used for information about events related to home and family. The other language may be identified as more formal and used for activities outside the home. There may also be periods when one language is used more than the other. The opposite occurs with a change in the environment.

Children may not be equally skilled in both languages. It is common for there to be greater understanding than actual use of one language. Less confusion will occur if children learn to associate the two languages differently, for example if one language is used while speaking to the mother and the other while speaking to the father.

Will Using Two Languages Cause Speech Language Problems?

In general, speech-language problems are less likely to occur when both languages are introduced early and simultaneously. There is a greater possibility of problems if children are introduced to a second language during the preschool years after another language was used exclusively. Some people believe that if a second language is introduced before the first language is fully developed, the development of the first language may be slowed or even regress. Others believe that the skill level of the second language will develop only to that of the first.

Parents who are concerned about their child's speech-language development should contact a speech-language pathologist. An appropriate evaluation of skills will include evaluation of both languages, and will be completed by a bilingual speech-language pathologist or one who has knowledge of the rules and structure of both languages and the assistance of a translator or interpreter. The discovery that a child has some delays in both languages does not necessarily indicate a need for professional services. These delays may be characteristic of a two language learner.


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It has been provided by American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 10801 Rockville Pike, Rockville, MD 20852. Phone (800) 638-8255

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