Bilingual Children

"Supporting bilingual children in early childhood" - By Jane Purcell and Michelle Lee, Speech Pathologists, and Janette Biffin, Early Childhood Educator

There are many definitions of bilingualism; however, most people define it as using two languages on a regular basis.

The extent to which a person is bilingual can vary. Some people are equally proficient in two languages across a range of contexts and this is often referred to as 'balanced bilingualism'. More often, when people are bilingual, one of the languages is used more regularly and with greater proficiency. This may be referred to as 'dominant bilingualism'.

There are also people who understand and use three or more languages and may be referred to as 'multilingual'.

Acquiring more than one language

There are two main ways to acquire more than one language:

  • simultaneous acquisition (when a child learns two languages at the same time); and
  • sequential acquisition (when the second language is learnt after the first).

Simultaneous acquisition

There are three identified stages when languages are acquired simultaneously:

  • Stage 1 – the child mixes two languages into one system;
  • Stage 2 – the child starts to separate the words from each language and recognises to which person that language should be spoken; and
  • Stage 3 – one language is used more than the other and that language becomes dominant, which is often the case.

In simultaneous acquisition, there are two common patterns of exposure to a second language:

  • one person – one language (for example, where one parent or other family member speaks one language, and another parent or family member speaks a different language); or
  • both parents (or other family members) speak both languages.

In general, the 'one person – one language' approach helps children to separate and learn the two languages.

Simultaneous acquisition

There are also three identified stages which motivate and guide sequential language learners.

  • Stage 1 – the child observes speakers of the second language and may be silent; the child may communicate non-verbally (for example, pointing); later, the child relies on whole memorised phrases.
  • Stage 2 – the child communicates with others in the second language; the child starts to create their own sentences; the child communicates as best they can.
  • Stage 3 – the child attempts to speak correctly using correct vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.

In sequential acquisition, the way in which the second language is introduced and maintained is vital. In particular, it is important that languages are clearly separated rather than one person inconsistently using a mixture of two languages. When languages are learnt sequentially:

  • understanding the basic rules of the first language will support the development of a second language;
  • the best way for children to acquire English as a second language is for families to continue to support and consolidate their first language at home; and
  • if the original or home language is replaced by a second language and all support for the first is withdrawn, some children can lose skills in their first language (this can result in negative consequences for a child both within their family and the community, and in their future language development).
Myths surrounding bilingualism

There are many myths associated with bilingualism.

  • Myth: Delays in language are caused by learning a second language.
    This is not true. Like any other child, a child who is bilingual can have language delays, but learning a second language neither increases nor decreases the chances of having a language delay.
  • Myth: It is easier to learn a second language if you stop using your first or home language and concentrate on the new language.
    The truth is that the stronger the first language is, the easier it is to learn a second language.
  • Myth: Parents should stop using the first or home language when the child begins speaking a second language such as English.
    In fact, the best way for families to support children learning English is to maintain the child’s first language at home. Parents don’t have to talk in English to help their child learn English. It is more important that parents use the language that they can use best and are the most comfortable speaking. When they do this they can provide models of grammatically correct sentences and access to a wide vocabulary. Parents should therefore continue to use their first language to talk to their child about everyday activities such as shopping, and share poems, stories, songs, books and games. It can also help if parents use the name of the language (for example, Mandarin or Cantonese), when speaking in this language to their child.
Factors affecting the rate of acquisition of English as a second language

There are a number of factors that influence the rate of acquisition of English as a second language. These include:

  • understanding the basic rules of the first language will support the development of a second language;
  • the length of time exposed to English;
  • the extent of the exposure to English;
  • the age of the child when they are first exposed to English;
  • the ways in which the child is exposed to English;
  • the similarities and differences between English and the home language;
  • the acceptance and value given to English and the home language;
  • individual characteristics within families – their strengths, needs and support; and
  • individual characteristics of the child (including personality, confidence and learning styles) that may influence their willingness and readiness to interact with others and try to use their new language.
What to expect when children are learning a second language

Many children become silent when first exposed to a second language. This silent period can last months and can be important in developing understanding. During this period it is important to allow children time to just observe without pressure to speak.

At this time, children often rely on adults around them and on non-­‐verbal cues in the environment; for example, adults pointing to what they are talking about or asking the child to do. They also often follow other children and imitate them.

It is not unusual for bilingual adults to switch between languages within a sentence and this can in fact enhance communication. Similarly, it is normal for children who are learning a new language to mix the two languages when making sentences.

Children who are learning English often begin by using short social phrases; for example, "my turn", "chase me", "help me". They usually find these phrases easy to use and often get positive results from other children and adults.