It’s always a great surprise when a child can converse fluently in two or more languages. It becomes an element of appreciation and a reflection of the parents’ efforts. And while there is nothing wrong with sticking to your mother tongue or a language commonly spoken around you, the advantages of raising bilingual children are plenty. You may see the difference with your cousins raised abroad who struggle with anything other than the language of the country they live in. Or even see some NRI nieces and nephews take up Indian language classes for Sanskrit to better connect with their roots.

To understand how being bilingual or multilingual affects children at a young age, TC46 connected with Dr Reeta Sonawat of Ampersand Group. Here, she shares the advantages of being bilingual, how to overcome the challenges when raising bilingual children and the implementation of the idea at home and in classrooms.

Bilingualism: Encouraging Language Skills Among Children At An Early Age 

The study of bilingualism and of language development in bilingual children are linguistic subject matters that have drawn immense interest in the last two decades. A spurt has been witnessed as a number of scholars at the global level have presented new international journals, shared insights in a plethora of publications, new corpora, and deliberated at conferences.

In simple terms, simultaneous early bilingualism refers to a child who learns two languages at the same time, from birth. Additive bilingualism as it may be called as it generally produces strong bilingualism. This also implies that the child’s language development is bilingual.

The Advantages Of Bilingualism

Generally, children develop communicative skills, with various degrees of proficiency, in oral and/or written skills, in order to interact with individuals who can interact in one or more languages in a particular society.

Interestingly, the brain of a bilingual speaker is wired in such a way that it quickly gets adapted to conversing in two languages, all at the same time. In a way, this aids to develop skills for functions that are far and wide, ranging from inhibition (a cognitive mechanism responsible for discarding irrelevant stimuli), working memory, and switching attention. The end result is that these cognitive skills leave an impact on the brain’s executive control system, which generally controls activities like high-level thought, multitasking, and sustained attention. The good part is that as bilingual individuals constantly switch between two sets of languages, they’re likely to be also deft at two different tasks. This may also relate to tasks that may not be linguistic alone. The minds of bilingual children are better programmed to focus their attention on a particular piece of information and cut out distractions. Moreover, there are several cognitive advantages to bilingualism.

A common observation has been that bilingual children may have a superior ability to focus on the one important thing, not allowing other stimuli to distract them, ‘selective attention’ as it is referred to; and alter their response according to the demands of a particular situation, referred to as ‘cognitive flexibility’. Both these skills are important aspects of executive functioning. Another plus point is that those who are adept at bilingualism are known to have a creative bent of mind and are better at planning and solving complex problems when compared with monolinguals.

It has been concluded that the cognitive advantages of bilingualism, related with attention and problem-solving, seem to be related to an individual’s proficiency in dual languages. Proficiency in language is equal to more benefits from bilingualism (cognitively), this can be stated safely.

Bilingual individuals have an edge in terms of improved linguistic skills, this is certainly not an overstatement. For example, to cite a few abilities, among others: 

  • The ability to learn new words easily
  • Spotting rhymes and other associations between words
  • The ability to use possessed information in new ways
  • Word categorization
  • Coming up with solutions to complex problems
  • Food listening skills and improved communication skills

Several studies have pointed to the fact that bilingual children are a notch higher than monolinguals when it comes to tasks testing executive functioning. A reason why bilinguals are thought to develop executive function advantages is that they are deft at managing multiple languages and continuously monitor the appropriate language for every communicative interaction.

Moreover, bilingualism also ensures that an individual would be capable of picking up more new languages as they grow into an adult. The best part, bilingualism helps in understanding different cultures in a more comfortable manner. In a way, they are better suited to become a true global citizen.

Raising Bilingual Children The Right Way

Essentially, if parents communicate in their mother tongue,  a child should be motivated to speak in that particular language. This would lead to the child relating to them in their language unconsciously. 

Develop a knack in a child to use both languages naturally. Storybooks are the best way to introduce children to a particular language. Another way could be making a child bond with friends who speak that particular language. Let the process towards bilingualism be as natural as possible.

Further, language exercises could also be conducted using a toy phone with another second language speaker. Similarly, dramatic play is another method for children’s language development considering that the conversation remains natural. Ideally, make a task schedule for bilingual children to become involved in pretend play using a second language. The initial hesitation can be overcome by helping them in taking on a role by playing alongside these children, slowly but surely they are likely to get comfortable.

Vital Tips For Parents On Overcoming Challenges 

The fact that parents tend to think about learning a particular language in adult terms generates further challenges.

There is a need for parents to read about how children learn a particular language faster. Find out more about bilingual language development. Another way could be that bilingual children should be allowed to attend a preschool that conducts its teachings in their native language as well as a second language. This way, they will have the opportunity to become deft in both languages through natural lingual acquisition over time. The younger they start, the better considering that it might not be possible to acquire another language so easily at a later stage in life.

The Ease Of Learning The Native Language

Learning a language is a quite natural process. So, if the parents or immediate family members converse in the native language, the child then unconsciously starts picking up that particular native language. 

Bilingual Children: Language Development 

The first stage of language development is babbling. At about 6-7 months of age, a bilingual child starts to babble in what may sound like words. While it is possible that some elements of babbling may actually sound like one language, and others like another, however, babbling is not linked to any particular language as such.

The early signs of language comprehension start from the age of 4 months onwards.  Often, bilingual children tend to show signs of comprehending words. In fact, the first sign of this is that a bilingual child will first learn to respond to their names. As a bilingual child approaches 13 months of age, they are capable of understanding on average 250 different words in total, in both their languages combined.

Generally, bilingual children are known to utter their first words between the ages of 8 and 15 months. A matter of various studies, the majority of the bilingual children have said at least one word in about one language by the time they reached the ages of 12 or 13 months. Ideally, a bilingual child may start out uttering words only in one particular language, or in both.

Quite often, bilingual children start to combine words and build short sentences between the ages of 15 and 23 months. Most bilingual children studied so far were combining words by the age of two. It has been commonly observed that the early word combinations may consist of two words from the same language or one word from each language. It may be possible that a child may combine words in each of their two languages from the very beginning, or just in one  language development of these children is different

Implementing Bilingual Language Development In Classrooms

In order to learn a second language, children must hear and practice it. In this regard, a school has a pivotal role to play and must provide opportunities for them to do so. These should not be formal teaching lessons. It has been observed that children from birth to 6, acquire skills in native and second languages most informally and spontaneously, by hearing it spoken around them, by trial and error they start speaking it naturally, and by subconsciously extracting the rules of the language and without any support from formal grammar teaching.

Ideally, reading children’s books in both languages or doing activities such as singing songs  can help a lot. If possible, maintain a daily 30-minute session where a child converses only in their second language. Avoid using a translator. This way, the child will be able to pick up enough nonverbal cues to understand. Over time, they would excel in their language skills. 

3 Essential Tips On Raising Bilingual Children

First and foremost, let the whole process be very natural. Allow a child to speak at their own pace. On a daily basis, develop speaking time for children. Another way could be to strike a conversation over a meal in the native language.

It is essential to help them develop the confidence to speak freely and in a normal tone. If possible,  avoid finding flaws in their speech at this stage, let the development process be subtle and organic. 

Lastly, teachers have a role to play in developing language skills in a child through positive reinforcement techniques. Teachers should serve as language role models for children.

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