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Baby bilingualism?

I have been struggling with a recalcitrant laptop that has defied even my daughter's deft hands in getting it sorted until yesterday. And this post was waiting to reach you...

....and then I had a fascinating request from a friend, who asked if I would be prepared to spend a couple of hours a day playing with and talking to the baby of her friend. Why? I wanted to know. Surely that time is important for the baby's Mother to spend with her own child? But no, this Mother, who is either very wise herself, or has been extremely well advised, wants her baby to learn English 'with a genuine English accent', and wants this to start now!

Yes! a baby has the ability to discriminate between languages even before birth! and by about 8 months, he has sorted out the sounds of the languages in his / her environment, and practices only those! I am impressed by that Mum - and even her desire for an English accent is not that crazy when one takes into account the diverse accents we have here in Dubai.

Here is a question from one of my Readers, that I am enjoying answering!

What are the pros and cons of talking in more than one language with young children?

My passionate answer - Do give your children this rich gift of bi- or multi-lingualism! It is one of the most precious things you will ever give them!

The ‘pros’ far outweigh the ‘cons’ of naturally using two or more languages with our children. From my experience, both in having a family who is multi-lingual, and in knowing so many families in similar situations, I have seen the wonderful benefits and incredible achievements of children growing up knowing more than one language - not just because they are bi-lingual, but in so many more ways too.

But - what about my child who is 'special'?

There are exceptions. If there are other factors like learning difficulties or disabilities affecting your child’s communication, that might make the 'cons' much stronger. I have talked in other posts about the sorts of decisions you might need to consider. It is often still best to give your child the benefit of learning his home language as well as another that is common in his environment or education because your child will still be in your family environment even when he or she leaves school and goes to work. It is the place where he or she should feel able to communicate, even if not perfectly.

What might or might not be 'Cons'?

1) Mixing languages - is seen as a con, because it is so common. I find myself doing it too! and it does add a bit of a challenge to our children in their ‘sorting and classifying’ of the languages they are learning. But it is not a huge problem for most children, who have the fun of discovering, adding to, and classifying the new words in each language that they hear and use. It also makes for funny moments!

Like the time in India, when my little brother, four years at the time, gestured with a piece of string to Mum saying ‘Cut oo, cut oo’ which she took to mean ‘cut’ in English, and cut the string, at which he became very upset until our Ayah said ‘Cutoo - tie it!’ in Tamil!

And confusion reigns, when in Pushto, someone says ‘ Betteri raura! - Bring the Battery!’ which does not mean ‘battery’ but ‘torch’! (a ‘battery’ is a ‘cell’!)

2) the Silent Phase. There is one thing that I have not included in the chart, because I am not sure whether it is a con or pro - and that is, that many children plunged into a new language environment go through a stage of becoming very silent for a while.

For these children, practicing talking seems to be less important than listening and observing the way the new language works. That’s fine - it reflects different learning patterns, and the child should be encouraged but not rushed to start talking in the new language.

Nursery staff soon pick up on the child who is new to English, and is struggling to make sense of everyday communication in school. The gentle ‘wait and see’ approach combined with lots of opportunities to hear the new language being spoken in context usually helps the child to feel confident enough to start talking in his school language.

How to avoid letting 'cons' be 'cons'

We can certainly avoid or minimise 'cons' with a typical child who is being brought up bi-lingual.

Communicate with your children in both or all languages, but in the language you know best most of the time: -

  • two-way chatting about everything,

  • reading and watching things with them,

  • discussing their ideas,

Your children will have opportunities to acquire the vocabulary and language strutures they need both in their home language(s) and in the language of school.

It's time to look at other experts!

Don’t just take my word for it! Take a look at just a few comments gleaned from studies and research that have been done, in various countries like UK, USA, Canada, Spain.

You will notice that quite often, a ‘con’ can actually be a ‘pro’, or can have another aspect to it.

Pros / Cons

Patricia Kuhl

Bilingual infants……. are able to discriminate between the two languages, providing a mechanism from the first moments of life that helps ensure bilingual infants do not confuse their two languages.


"high rates of language mixing make it harder for children to categorise words they hear.”


Two sets of words and two sets of sound systems

Dr. Poulin-Dubois. "Exposing toddlers to a second language early in their development provides a bilingual advantage that enhances attention control.

Freedman “Language mixing is often helpful, is normal and happens for good reasons……”

Garcia-Sierra……bilinguals tend to have smaller vocabularies in each language than do children who know one language...

Byers-Heinlein….. "high rates of language mixing ….. could lead to slower word learning and smaller vocabularies.

Adrian Garcia-Sierra

…..the bilingual brain remains flexible to languages for a longer period of time….

Adrian Garcia-Sierra …….bilingual babies "may have a different timetable for neurally committing to a language" compared with monolingual babies ……

Adrian Garcia-Sierra "Learning a second language is like learning a sport, the more you play the better you get."

Byers-Heinlein….. "high rates of language mixing ….. could lead to slower word learning and smaller vocabularies.

Children learning two languages from birth achieve the same basic milestones (e.g., their first word) as monolinguals do, but they may use different strategies for language acquisition.

……. the roots of bilingualism run deeper than previously imagined, extending even to the prenatal period ….

They (University of Washington ) found that …..the size of the bilingual children's vocabulary was associated with the strength of their brain responses in discriminating languages at 10-12 months of age.

(implications for children with learning difficulties)


Bilinguals tend to perform better than monolinguals on exercises that require blocking out distractions and switching between two or more different tasks.

…..bilinguals may have an advantage when it comes to certain nonverbal cognitive tasks…..

Garcia-Sierra,….. vocabulary tests are commonly used in psychologists’ offices, and bilinguals’ scores may not accurately reflect their language ability…..

“Bilinguals who score below average may be inaccurately diagnosed with impairment when none is present, or could be diagnosed as ‘normal for a bilingual’ even though impairment is in fact present and treatment is needed.” University of Washington


The bilingual advantage in attention and cognitive control may have important, long-term benefits …… may protect bilinguals against Alzheimer’s.


……it’s more difficult to learn a word from a mixed-language sentence than from a single-language sentence.”…..


….. cognitive advantages that would outweigh any initial difficulties brought about by language mixing.

Byers-Heinlein cautions that,

“……exposure to language mixing is initially challenging for vocabulary acquisition …


….babies growing up bilingual with Spanish and Catalan….were able to distinguish between English and French simply through facial cues, even though they had never before seen speakers of either language.

…they have also developed a more general perceptual vigilance….


….human infants are equally prepared to grow up bilingual as they are monolingual"

So - what do you think?

I welcome more questions or ideas, and things you have found work or do not work, in developing children with ‘partitioned’ brains that learn more languages.

Best wishes


The Authors of the studies quoted above:

Dr Diane Poulin-Dubois Concordia University Montreal, Montréal

Cognitive Psychology, Cognitive Science, Developmental Psychology

Werker: Canada Research Chair in Psychology and director of UBC's Infant Studies Centre.

Freedman: Freedman's study were published in the December 2012 issue of the "International Journal of Bilingualism."

Krista Byers-Heinlein - Concordia Infant Research Lab

The Concordia Infant Research Lab, directed by Dr. Krista Byers-Heinlein, studies how bilingualism in the infant and preschool years affects children's language

Adrian Garcia-Sierra: lead author and a postdoctoral researcher at UW's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

Patricia Khul: a UW professor of speech and hearing sciences.

Dr. Jill Gilkerson is the Director of Research at the LENA Foundation

Dr. Frederick J. Zimmerman, associate professor in the Department of Health Services in the UCLA School of Public Health

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