10 questions on bilingualism

Half of the world population today speak more than one language and in our global society the need for bilingual, if not multilingual, skills is increasing. Bilingualism in education is a controversial topic, with a history of debate that goes back to the first half of the 20th century. When recent studies revealed that early exposure to various languages promotes the development of enhanced communication skills, adding to the list of perceived benefits (better educational performance, heightened cognitive abilities, greater job opportunities, increased creativity), other researchers pointed out that the purported “bilingual advantage” may be only a myth.

This post is for those of you that have been wondering about the benefits of bilingualism. Read more here and learn more about the reasons why you should speak more than one language!

1. What does it mean to be bilingual?

Bilingual, at its most basic, means that you can speak two languages. Some people believe that to be considered bilingual, one must have equal or native-like proficiency in both languages, but this discounts people who speak a mother tongue natively and a second tongue effectively, though without the same proficiency. In fact, most bilingual people use their languages for different purposes, and develop their skills in each language according to their needs. For the purpose of this article, we define bilingualism as the regular use of two or more different languages in daily life. Therefore, a bilingual person is able to communicate, think and reflect in (at least) two different languages, even if one of the languages remains dominant.

2. Does early-life bilingual education cause developmental delays?

Research does not support the notion that bilingual exposure results in speech disorders or developmental delays.

3. Is there a best time for second language acquisition?

Research by cognitive scientists shows that native-like language acquisition should start by the age of 10 for maximum effect, with acquisition tapering off by the age of 18. This is explained by the fact that the mother tongue is in principle consolidated by the age of 10: the child’s cognitive skills will then be sufficiently developed to transfer mother tongue structures and patterns to the additional language, which may accelerate the additional language acquisition.

However, a separate body of research indicates that age is less of a factor than we’ve thought for a long time. The difference in learning styles between adults and children might actually be a bigger determinant, because children are more constantly immersed in the classroom and have plenty of opportunity to be quizzed and to interact with other speakers, while adults might only be learning in their free time. In other words, it’s the volume of exposure to the additional language which is a key factor.

4.  Is it bad to mix languages inside sentences?

Many bilingual cultures will know about code-switching, or the phenomenon of alternating between two languages when in conversation. Code-switching gets a bad rap for the potential of sullying development and proficiency in either language. However, research shows that it doesn’t actually have a negative impact on learning: the child is usually using a word or sentence part out of the other language to compensate a gap in vocabulary. The awareness of this discrepancy leads then to the expansion of vocabulary. In other words, the child is aware of their ‘mistake’ and makes a conscious or unconscious effort to learn the missing vocabulary.

5. What are the positive effects of bilingualism?

We’ve covered this many times: bilingualism confers many advantages to students. They generally perform better at school and demonstrate improved executive function, memory, and cognitive flexibility, among others. It also makes people more open-minded and offers a variety of new worldviews – a valuable asset in an increasingly globalised and multicultural world.

6. Do bilingual children have a smaller vocabulary than their monolingual counterparts?

In each language that they know, a bilingual child may not know as many words compared to a monolingual native. However, this is because they learn according to need – they might know the right words for something in the language they use at school, while in their language at home, they have a different vocabulary available to them. This means that they have an equal vocabulary as their monolingual peers, but this vocabulary may be dispatched between two languages

7. Do bilingual people translate in their head from one language to another?

Mental cross-translation between two languages is a common occurrence early on when one is just starting to learn a second language. This happens mostly when the first language is consolidated, i.e. by children aged 10 and more. However, as proficiency grows in the second language, speakers start to speak naturally without translation.

8.  How can parents support their bilingual children’s language acquisition?

One of the most important ways by which children learn anything is by mirroring their parents, and this holds true for language attitudes. If a child can speak the same two languages that their parents speak, then it falls on the parents to reinforce the weaker language at home. Even if the parents do not speak the child’s second language, it’s important that they provide encouragement and support for learning that language, or else the child may become unmotivated to learn it.

We also provided a list of ways on how to encourage bilingualism at home. Goal setting, gentle mistake correction, and systematic, regular exposure to theecond language are some of these methods.

9. Do children forget their learned languages?

Children are very quick to learn new languages, but also very quick to forget them if they’re not maintained. Like an untrained muscle, an unused or unsupported language may wither away.

10. What approaches should be used to support bilingual children?

Every approach has its own unique advantages and disadvantages. For example, the most popular and easiest to adopt method is the so-called “one person, one language” technique, where the child speaks one language with one person, and another language with the other.

Another technique involves starting with one language from a young age, and then slowly introducing the new language at the age of 4-5. This approach allows a consolidation of the mother tongue, which is then an asset for the learning of additional languages later on.

One of the best ways to learn is to combine home strategies with bilingual education programmes at school. Swiss International School in Dubai’s streams are an excellent solution to bilingual support and maintenance, and offer an array of competent mother tongue speakers who will engage students in their native language.

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