We live in a world of great linguistic diversity. More than half of the world’s population grows up with more than one language. There are, on the other hand, language communities that are monolingual, typically some parts of the English-speaking world.
In this case, bilingualism or multilingualism can be seen as an extraordinary situation – a source of admiration and worry at the same time. But there are communities where bilingualism or multilingualism are the norm…
On a smaller scale, we all know families where bilingualism or multilingualism are the norm, because the parents speak different languages or because the family uses a language different from that of the community around them.
How difficult is it for a child to grow up in such an environment? And what are bilingual children capable of? Well, they are capable of quite a lot, even at a very young age. They can understand and produce expressions in more than one language, they know who to address in which language, they are able to switch very fast from one language to the other.
Clearly we are talking here of a range of different skills: social, linguistic and cognitive. Social skills are the most known: bilingual children are able to interact with speakers of (at least) two languages and thus have direct access to two different cultures.
But they also have linguistic skills, some very obvious, such as understanding and using words and expressions in different languages. A less obvious aspect is that bilingual children have a raised awareness for how language “works”. For example, bilinguals are better than monolinguals of the same age at pinpointing that the sentence “apples growed on trees” is bad, and “apples grow on noses” is fine, but doesn’t make sense.
Less known are the cognitive skills developed by bilinguals, an issue of great interest for research at the moment, as seen, for example, in work by Ellen Bialystok and colleagues. Probably due to the practice of switching languages, bilinguals are very good at taking different perspectives, dealing with conflicting cues and ignoring irrelevant information. This skill can be applied to domains other than language, making it an added value of bilingualism…
Research has shown regular patterns in code-switching, influenced by the languages concerned, by community norms and by which language(s) people learn first or use more frequently. Very often, code-switchers are very highly proficient in the languages concerned. Code-switching also follows social rules: bilingual children only use it if they know the interlocutor knows the “other” language.
All typically developing children will learn one language. To learn more than one they need the opportunity and the motivation. Growing up with more than one language is an asset well worth the investment.
I second that emotion. I’ve known families with bilingual kids back in New England. I know families with bilingual kids here in New Mexico. Generally, English is their second language.
Strictly a subjective observation, no science in the equation, they seem to me to race ahead of their monolingual peers. True, I’m one of those strange old codgers who only speaks to children who seem advanced for their years, able to hold a conversation like an adult. But, the conclusions in the article seem to hold true.