Sunday, June 27, 2010

Speechy Sunday - Bilingual Babies

As an early intervention speech-language pathologist, I am honored to be a sounding board for all kinds of decisions that families make for their young children. From, "Do you think he's ready for potty training?" to "How can we get her to sleep through the night?" to "Should I start her on rice cereal or pureed veggies first?," I am asked every day about how to best help children grow and develop. And one of my favorite questions to get these days is, "Should we raise our child to be bilingual?"

Many families who are considering raising their child to be bilingual are nervous at the outset. Many of my clients' families were themselves raised in a home where only one language was spoken (a monolingual home), so it's difficult for them to picture exactly what it will look like if they choose to teach their child two languages as they grow. Parents are also often concerned about slowing down overall language development by confusing their child with two different languages.

Today, I was pleased to stumble upon an article that addresses just these concerns. In the article, called "Raising Bilingual Children: Common Parental Concerns and Current Research," authors Kendall King and Lyn Fogle discuss the results of in-depth interviews they conducted with 24 different parents in DC who were all attempting to raise their children to be bilingual. The idea was to figure out what the main concerns of the parents were, and then to answer those concerns with evidence from current research.

The authors came up with four common concerns, and here's what they had to say about each concern:

Concern 1: "I'm nervous that my child's language will be delayed if we raise him to be bilingual." -- The authors cite two different researchers who state that there is no relationship between being bilingual and higher incidence of language delay. So, in short, bilingual children are no different than monolingual children in their chances at having a language delay. (Whew! All parents raising their children in a bilingual home heave a huge sigh of relief!)

Concern 2: "I'm worried that my child will be confused by hearing two languages at once." -- I hear this a lot from families I work with, that the family is concerned that their child is "mixing" Spanish and English, for example. The good news is that the authors report that this "mixing" of the languages is actually common in typically developing bilingual children. I thought that it was interesting, too, that, although I had been taught in graduate school that one of the best ways to keep bilingual children from experiencing language confusion was to have one parent speak one language and the other parent speak the other language (for example, mom speak Spanish and dad speak English) to the child, it actually turns out that it is not harmful for both parents to speak a little of both languages to the child, or for the child to hear one language at home and another at school, as long as the quantity and quality of exposure to both the languages is similar. So I learned something new today!

Concern 3: "I'm worried that I don't have the right program or materials for teaching my child a second language." -- There are tons of videos and DVDs out there claiming to be the best program to teach your child a second language. The problem is, though, that kids just really don't learn as much language as we think they do from a television. The authors point out that,
"human interaction is the best method for fostering both first and second language development."
So save your money! You can just read books together, and play games together, and take walks together while speaking the second language, and, voila!, you'll be teaching way more than those expensive DVD sets and games ever could.

Concern 4: "I'm worried that if I don't raise my child to be bilingual, he won't end up being as smart as he could've been." -- King and Fogle found that many parents thought that raising their children to be bilingual would make their children smarter. Seems to make sense, right? But, it's bad news for those parents seeking extra IQ points from the work it takes to raise their children to be bilingual. King and Fogle say this:

"both parents and the popular press overstate the known cognitive advantages of bilingualism, noting, for instance, that bilingualism will make children smarter overall, when in fact, research suggests advantages only in very specific areas."

Those specific areas are things like metalinguistic skills (being able to think about know, that it's made up of words and sentences and sounds, and stuff like that) and cognitive processing. They didn't go into detail about the cognitive processing part. I'll have to look that up and report on it in another post. (By the way, I'm also researching for a post about bilingual children with language stay tuned if you're interested in that topic!)

Anyway, overall, the authors review the literature about each concern, and in the end, encourage families to give it a try if they're interested in raising their children to be bilingual. They also cite a study about how important it is for families to maintain their native language (or best language) in the home, so that they provide the best grammar and vocabulary models for their children.

Not to get up on my soapbox, but it really irks me when well-meaning people tell parents who speak Spanish to only use English at home with their young children, to "make it easier for her to learn English for school." Um, really? You want the parent to use a language they perhaps are not completely comfortable with and risk the chance that the children will grow up not knowing Spanish, not being able to communicate with family members who are monolingual, not having the wonderful benefit of knowing two languages, just so that it will make kindergarten a little bit easier?? Really?

OK, stepping down from my soapbox now.

Parents, speak your best language to your kiddos. Use the richest, most descriptive vocabulary you can with them. Read books with flowery language and long sentences, and conjunctions like "however," "nonetheless," and neat stuff like that. That's what's going to help your child learn in the long run.

Are you bilingual? Do you wish you were? Do you plan to teach your children a second language? Did you learn a pointless language in high school like I did? (Don't tell my old French teacher I said that!!)

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