Several of my grandma friends have mentioned that their grandchildren are enrolled in language immersion pre-schools. They rave about how their little toddlers are learning Spanish right along with English. As a former speech therapist, I wondered about the benefits and concerns.
I started by asking my cousin, Maria, who’s from Mexico. She’s teaching her two daughters her native tongue because she wants them to be able to have a relationship with their grandparents and cousins who live in Mexico. The girls, ages 7 and 5, speak English with their father and paternal grandparents. She hasn’t observed any language delay but says it takes awhile for children to learn all the words for everything in both languages. It helps that her daughters are also learning to read, write and speak Spanish at school.
“In the beginning they knew that there were two words for the same thing,” says Maria, “but they did not realize there were two languages. Once they are immersed in both languages they go back and forth without a problem.” Her girls know that if they are with her or her family, they speak Spanish. “It becomes harder when they realize that everywhere else they can just speak English and they become a bit lazy to speak Spanish.”
Although she says it can be a lot of work to encourage the girls to use both languages, she feels the advantages are great for developing their brains. She believes that learning languages is as beneficial as learning music.
What Do the Experts Say About Raising Bilingual Children?
According to the American Speech and Language Association, most children have the capacity to learn two or more languages. Research suggests there are advantages to being bilingual, such as linguistic and metalinguistic abilities, and cognitive flexibility, such as concept formation, divergent thinking and general reasoning and verbal abilities. If a child has a speech or language problem, it will show up in both languages. However, these problems are not caused by learning two languages.
In her book Raising Bilingual Children, Carey Myles says “Bilingualism has been linked to a variety of positive cognitive benefits, including early reading, improved problem-solving skills, and higher scores on the SATs, including the math section.” Myles also claims that bilingual children have been shown to demonstrate “better listening perception” and that they “recognize earlier than monolingual children do that language is symbolic… and…are more skilled at interpreting and manipulating grammar to communicate clearly.”
Bilingualism can strengthen family ties by allowing relatives to communicate comfortably in the native language of older family members like grandparents. Children who master two languages also have increased opportunities for employment once they leave school.
The biggest concern most parents have is that learning a foreign language will compromise or interfere with the child’s English skills. But many studies have shown that no long-term delay in native English language development occurs in children participating in second language classes, even in full immersion programs. In fact, children enrolled in foreign language programs statistically score higher on standardized tests conducted in English.
The other common concern is that the child may develop a functional ability to communicate in both languages without achieving fluency in either one. It’s been shown that balanced exposure to both languages can help children achieve fluency in each one. In fact, learning a foreign language can enhance children’s performance on standardized English language testing.