Should infants be raised bilingually?

The Pediatric Insider

© 2013 Roy Benaroch, MD

Carla wrote in, “I speak only English, and my husband speaks Spanish and English. Will it confuse our child to hear both languages? Or is it better to start speaking Spanish with him when he is young?”

In the past, some authorities had advised against speaking multiple languages in a household. The thinking was that two or more languages would confuse a child who was just learning to speak, causing frustrating and delayed speech skills. It turns out that this isn’t true at all.

Multiple good studies, like this one, have shown that simultaneous bilingualism—raising children to speak two languages at the same time—doesn’t cause or contribute to speech delays or speech-language problems. This seems to be true for studies done in many different countries looking at different combinations of languages. While some studies do show that at first, children may learn fewer individual words (or learn their first clear words more slowly), within just a few months these kids catch up, often surpassing the speech skills of their single-language peers by kindergarten.

Babies and toddlers have a unique gift for language. They can learn human speech just by listening and copying, without “practice” or translation. The best way to help young children learn to speak is to speak with them. Talk about what you’re doing, and what they’re doing; discuss what you see and what you hear. Give them a chance to answer back, and reflect clearly back at them what they just said. Speak just a little slower and a little more clearly, but don’t exaggerate your speech. It’s also very helpful to read books, over and over, pointing things out and talking about what’s happening. The more live, interactive human speech developing children hear, the better and faster their speech development is likely to be.

I recommend that bilingual couples (or couples with one bilingual member) embrace their second, or third, or even fourth language. Speak it just as much, if not more, than English. Kids growing up here in the USA, even kids who have two non-native-English-speaking parents, grow up speaking English well. If you want your kids to learn a second language as well as a native speaker, the time to “teach” is when they’re too young to know they’re being taught!

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5 Comments on “Should infants be raised bilingually?”

  1. OMDG Says:

    Ha. Ha. Ha.

    I actually think that while a lovely idea in theory, in practice, this is really hard to implement unless both parents are bilingual. The temptation to speak the same language can be too great when the family is together.

    Now, can you please come over to my house and kick my husband’s a$$? He refuses to speak Italian to our daughter because it feels “awkward” to him. Everybody scolds ME about it, like somehow I can force him to do it. Drives me crazy.

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  2. Chris Hickie Says:

    Before I became a pediatrician, friends of my parents who were raising their granddaughter did so while speaking English, Korean and Spanish around her. She went to kindergarten speaking sentences using all 3 languages. The teachers had to send her home and it took her grandparents a few weeks to teach her not to use Korean at school and to speak full sentences in either English or Spanish. After that she did fine, and a few years back she obtained a PhD in the sciences. So, anectdotally, trilingualism is not a bad thing either.

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  3. Alain Latour Says:

    Thanks for yet another great post. Is it true though that it may confuse toddlers when one parent speaks more than one language? By this I mean, should I only speak English to my child while my wife speaks only in Spanish? So far we’ve both been using Spanish because I couldn’t quite bring myself to using my second language with him. Now though I am willing to use English 100% of the time if it’s going to help my son relate to other toddlers.

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  4. Dr. Roy Says:

    Toddlers don’t seem to mind when different family members use different languages– in time, they will come to expect it if you’re consistent, and will answer in the “correct” language for the speaker. Parents can speak whatever they’re comfortable with, keeping in mind that if you want them to learn your native language well, you’d better speak it!

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  5. Alain Says:

    Thanks, Dr. Roy!

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