With growing diversity in our communities and early learning programs, it is not uncommon for educators and caregivers to work with families teaching infants to learn more than one language at a time. According to Healthy Children, approximately 20% of children in the United States speak a language other than English at home, with Spanish as the most common non-English language.
But, how easy is it for children to simultaneously learn two languages? And what are the benefits or potential downsides of learning more of very young children learning more than one language? Research has shown that infants are able to learn two languages better than adults can! A study from The University of Washington found that early childhood is the best time to learn multiple languages and that children who are born into and raised in bilingual homes, typically become native speakers of both.
Language Acquisition in the First Year
According to research scientist, Naja Ferjan Ramirez, of the University of Washington, babies start learning language sounds before they’re even born. While babies are in the womb, they regularly hear their mother talking, and learn the sound of her voice and even the language that she is speaking. When babies are born, they are already able to distinguish between the language their mother speaks and other languages.
Ramirez also shares that babies have an “unusual gift” at birth. They are able to decipher differences among all 800 sounds that comprise all of the world’s languages, an ability which is typically lost around the first birthday as children become more specialized in the sounds of their native language.
Effects on Later Speech Development
While some worry that learning two languages at the same time could lead to speech or language delays, research shows that this is not the case. Healthy Children shares that the milestones of pre-language and language development are consistent across all languages. While toddlers might mix parts of a word or grammar rules from one language to another, it does not necessarily mean that the child is delayed in speech acquisition or development. Ultimately, bilingual children will learn to separate both languages correctly.
Benefits of Bilingualism
Teaching children two languages is beneficial in many ways, according to Judy Willis, a neurologist and former teacher whose work specializes in research regarding learning and the brain. In an article for Psychology Today, she shares that, “the networks that appear more active in the brains of bilingual children are part of the brain’s CEO networks, called executive functions. These…support goal-oriented behavior including directing attentive focus, prioritizing, planning, self-monitoring, inhibitory control, judgment, working memory (maintenance and manipulation of information), and analysis.”
Additional research from the University of Chicago suggests that bilingualism supports social-emotional development by helping young children consider other perspectives and become better communicators. The researchers noted that learning is a social language; being exposed to multiple languages exposes children to a greater variety of social experiences, helping them to become more understanding of other perspectives, opinions, and ideas.
Supporting Bilingual Children and Families
How do we support bilingual children as their parents work to help them learn two languages?
Books: Reading bilingual books with children is a great way to help children understand words and concepts from both languages. Ask parents if they have books to bring from home, or search for popular bilingual books online.
Basic Words: Ask parents about common words that they use at home. It might help to know how to pronounce the words they use in the non-English language for nap, bottle, diaper, or other words that relate to infant caregiving routines.
Music: Playing songs from different languages will increase exposure to a variety of learning opportunities. Play songs in the parents’ native language in the classroom or when playing outside as a fun way to learn together.