Is it better to be bilingual or monolingual?

Raising bilingual kids can have numerous benefits, not the least in brain development and language acquisition skills.

The adorable mixed-race kid is an increasingly common sight in Asia these days. With parents from two separate cultures, such children are often envied for growing up in a multi-language household. Not only are they fawned over for their exotic good looks, they are also often envied for their ability to speak two or more languages effortlessly.

The effort to raise bilingual children, however, is often far from straightforward. Experts recommend the “one parent one language” policy, which offers kids natural exposure to both languages.

If one becomes more dominant over the other, however, parents can just boost the child’s acquisition of the secondary language. Audio books, TV programmes, music, and apps can be helpful to this end.

Parents can also enhance second language acquisition by joining a community of expat families. This way, children can engage in certain activities where the language in question can be reinforced.

Intercontinental families favour sending their children on vacation with grandparents living in another country. This effectively functions as an ad hoc foreign language immersion programme.

Not a cause of speech delay

Bilingual households used to be blamed for delays in speech acquisition. However, today’s conventional wisdom says that languages do not compete with or obstruct each other. That impression seems to have been formed because of the messy way kids often code-switch and mix languages.

Ellen Kester, a speech-language consultant in Texas, says that bilingualism “does not cause delays in either speech or language acquisition.”

Research indicates that birth until three years is the optimal window for acquiring the basics of two (or more) languages. Meanwhile, four to seven are when kids are able to attain native fluency in a second language alongside their first.

Brainpower

With two languages and twice the vocabulary, can one expect bilingual kids to have double the brainpower? Not quite — although studies indicate that they often perform better on standardized tests and demonstrate higher academic achievements.

Studies looking at behavioural science in children often refer to the “30 million word gap.” It refers to the small volume of words heard by children, especially those from low-income families. Parents in such families do not spend as much time with their children as their well-off counterparts. So with two languages heard at home, bilingual kids maybe getting an even bigger head start in word count.

Judith Kroll, a psychologist who does extensive research on bilingualism at Pennsylvania State University, has suggested that switching between languages often involves a cognitive effort that sharpens one’s focus, decision-making skills, and even empathy for others.

Learning another language later in life has been shown to improve memory and reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Young children in naturally bilingual environments therefore reap the most benefits.

One Swedish study even demonstrated that the mental effort learning a second language as an adult actually enlarges the hippocampus, which stores and retrieves memories. Several other studies suggest that acquiring new vocabulary in another language enhances neural connectivity in various parts of the brain.

Non-verbal communication is important too

But even parents who speak just one language to their kids can work on the quality of communication at home. A 2016 study published in the British Journal of Development Psychology suggests that parent-child interaction impacts a child’s development. Specifically, parents who used language in an “exploring” way — that is, sensitively and without intruding too much — established a closer relationship with their children.

On the other hand, parents who overused authoritarian, controlling language tended not to.

A similar study co-authored by Dr. Margaret Tresch Owen at the University of Texas at Dallas in 2015 also found that what mattered, regardless of how many languages were spoken at home, was “shared attention, routines, and rituals.”

In short, non-verbal cues enhance the quality rather than quantity of parent-child communication. This has a direct influence on the later language ability of children at school.

This article is a contribution from Justin Ng - edmit.com