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How bilingualism affects language development

Bilingualism is the ability to communicate fluently in a language other than your native language. As our world becomes more global, we also become increasingly bilingual. The mixing of cultures leads to bilingualism. Specifically, exposure to languages from neighbouring regions can influence the development of bilingualism.

Bilingualism can occur in ways other than immigration. People can also decide to learn a new language on their own. A person can become bilingual with dedication and practice of the language. Often, individuals who decide to become bilingual do so because of its many benefits. For example, learning another language can lead to improved executive function, increased ability to communicate with others, and improved cultural competence. Executive functions are skills that allow people to complete tasks by organizing information properly. In terms of proficiency in learning two languages, equal proficiency in both the native and second language is relatively uncommon. Typically, unbalanced bilingualism, or when an individual has an increased proficiency in one language compared to the other, is the most common type. However, it is important to point out that the language that is stronger is not always the native language. People can become more proficient in their newly learned language than their native language if they do not use their native language often.

The effects of bilingualism on language development in children are examined. Theories suggest that bilingual children are able to learn a second language after the first is mastered. One of the reasons behind this is that the child has already developed the nonverbal concept of the word (because the child is already using it in the primary language), so only the verbal concept must be constructed. It has been shown that balanced bilinguals are more cognitively and linguistically flexible. However, unbalanced bilinguals generally show mixed results.

There are some wrong opinions about bilingualism like the idea that a child who learns a second language in his early childhood grows harder or that it will confuse the two languages. Sometimes children can use terms of both languages, the differentiation between them occurring naturally. Therefore, the idea that children who learn simultaneously a second language are having a harder development is not true, the reality being actually the opposite: bilingual children develop faster and more complex.

Thus, most experts in early childhood growth are encouraging the parents to support their children to learn two languages from an early age. The child is perfectly able to assimilate a new language from 3 years old because the learning is actually much easier at that stage than later on in their development (eg. when school starts).

In fact, the studies are showing that a child can learn two languages simultaneously from the very beginning or they are assimilating the second one from the age of 1 with the acquisition of a part of their mother language. Learning a second language early has many advantages, apart from the obvious - that the child will develop early learning skills and superior communication abilities.

At 2-3 years old it is good that one of the two languages becomes the main language, as the child gradually learns sentence and will then learn the rules of the other language. If the child becomes confused or frustrated the best idea is to stay focus on one language, the second one being learned later on.

Both parents play a very important role in the child’s language development. If the mother spends more time with the child than the father, the mother’s language will have more impact on the child than the fathers. This does not mean that his/her father’s language will not be fully received by the child, especially if the father will make an effort to spend as much time with the child as possible, playing with him/her, reading stories and even just sitting and talking to the child. Here's just one example in this regard: an Australian family decided to raise their children as bilinguals. While the mother always spoke English to her kids, the father tried to speak only German. As they hopped the kids assimilated both languages naturally, even if the father spent an average, six times less time with his kids than their mother.

Bilingual children express themselves better orally and in writing, in both languages ! So, a bilingual child actually communicates in their natural language better than a monolingual one! In addition, early learning means speaking the foreign language as easy as a native one would do (later on in the development process some problems may appear in the learning of pronunciation). Learning two languages early boosts cognitive abilities of the child. Bilingual children have a stronger memory, better attention to detail and more development capacity of understanding than those who learned only their mother language. In addition, studies show that the bilinguals develop flexible thinking, being able to move easily from a cognitive task to another one and quickly process and understand more complex information. These children have more agile brains. A foreign language requires contact and exposure to a culture different from their own (even if they are similar).

Thus, bilingual children are open to differences and to diversity. Their thinking and self-projection in the future are influenced by knowing two languages from the pre-school period. Here's an interesting result of a study conducted at the University Concordia: a bilingual child has a different worldview than the one who just learned its own natural language. More specifically, young children tend to see everything as pre-existing; characteristics, traits, someone’s preference, the language - the child perceives all of these as being innate and unchangeable.

However, a bilingual child understands all the above as being learned and, therefore, open to change. That bilingual child will know that a person is what it is not because it was borne like that, but because they became (we are not borne personality, we are becoming one). This is an interesting difference in thinking among children who know two languages and those who know only their mother tongue. Other studies show that bilingualism slows down the brain’s aging, keeping the brain active and even delaying the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

Aritri Ghosh
Amity University, Kolkata


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