5 Concerns About Children Becoming Bilingual Answered by Prof. Fred Genesee

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Families around the world are raising bilingual children and living linguistically rich lives. Yet childhood bilingualism continues to be poorly understood. Why so many misconceptions and what can we learn from today’s research?

By Fred Genesee
Photo credit: Parker Michael Knight
From Multilingual Living Magazine

Language acquisition is an everyday and yet magical feat of childhood. Within three to five years, virtually all children become fully competent in at least one language. We accept this as totally normal. We seldom worry about whether or not it will happen even though it is the most complex accomplishment of early childhood.

Even more remarkable are those children who simultaneously acquire proficiency in two, or more, languages during the preschool years. Within the same time frame as it takes monolingual children to learn one language, bilingual children learn two languages and become adept at using them in socially diverse and appropriate ways.

It is estimated that there may be as many children who grow up learning two languages as one. Despite this, childhood bilingualism is poorly understood by many and regarded with skepticism by others. Because of lack of familiarity with or knowledge about childhood bilingualism, parents, educators, and early childhood specialists may express doubts about childhood bilingualism and they may expect negative consequences to result from children learning two languages during the preschool years. Such concerns are especially common in communities where most children grow up monolingual and, as a result, adult members of the community come to view monolingualism as normal and bilingualism as abnormal.

In recent years, researchers have been actively involved in studying bilingual acquisition and, although all the research evidence is not yet in, we now have a more detailed description of important aspects of bilingual development than previously.

Bilingual acquisition is complex. In comparison with monolingual children who usually learn language from their parents, bilingual children may depend not only on parents but also on grandparents, playmates, or childcare and daycare workers to learn their languages. Bilingual children may learn their languages primarily in the home, like monolingual children, or in the daycare, or neighborhood.

Bilingual children’s exposure to their languages can also differ greatly, as, for example, if the child is learning one language from a parent who works at home and the other from a parent who works outside the home. Their language exposure can fluctuate greatly over time, if, for example, the parent who is the primary source of one of the languages takes a job in another city and is only home on weekends.

Here are responses to some concerns that are commonly expressed by parents and child care professionals about bilingual acquisition in early childhood:

Concern #1: Learning two languages in childhood is difficult and can result in delays in language development.

Children who have regular and rich exposure to both languages on a daily or weekly basis from parents and other caregivers exhibit the same milestones in language development and at roughly the same ages as monolingual children. It is important to remember that there are large individual differences in language acquisition — some children acquire their first words or use complex utterances much earlier than other children. Delay in the emergence of these milestones does not necessarily mean that there is something seriously wrong; in most cases it simply means that the child has taken longer to reach this stage. The same kinds of differences are characteristic of bilingual children.

It is important that parents of bilingual children provide systematic exposure to both languages all the time and that they avoid radical changes to the language environment of the child. Such changes can disrupt language development and create difficulties for the child.

Concern #2: Bilingual children have less exposure to each of their languages than monolingual children. As a result, they never master either language fully and, compared to monolingual children, they never become as proficient.

Bilingual children can acquire the same proficiency in all aspects of their two languages over time as monolingual children even though they usually have less exposure to each language. Bilingual children acquire the same proficiency in the phonological and grammatical aspects of their two languages as monolingual children do in their one language, provided they are given regular and substantial exposure to each.

Bilingual children may have somewhat different patterns of development in certain aspects of language in the short term. Vocabulary is one of those areas. Sometimes, young bilingual children know fewer words in one or both of their languages in comparison with monolingual children of the same age. This is probably because all young children have limited memory capacities, and bilingual children must store words from two languages, not just one.

As well, because bilingual children learn words in each language from different people, they sometimes know certain words in one language but not in the other. When the vocabulary that bilingual children know in both languages is considered together, they generally know the same number of words and have the same range of vocabulary as their monolingual peers. Most importantly, when and if differences like these occur, they are short term and are likely to disappear by the time the children begin school.

Interpersonal communication is another area where bilingual children sometimes differ. The ways of communicating in certain social situations or of expressing certain meanings can be quite different in some languages. If bilingual children are acquiring such languages and they have not had full exposure to one or both of them, then they may not have acquired the ability to express these meanings or they may not be proficient in certain social situations. Given adequate and appropriate experience with their languages, most bilingual children quickly acquire all of the social language skills and ways of expressing themselves they need.

Generally speaking, bilingual children’s overall proficiency in each language reflects the amount of time they spend in each. Thus, a child who has just returned from a visit to a grandparent where only one of the languages was used, may prefer to use only that language for awhile and, thus, may appear to have lost some proficiency in the other language. This is usually a short term, temporary shift in preference that is corrected once the child is exposed to the neglected language.

It is important not to overreact to these temporary fluctuations in proficiency since they are usually temporary. Parents can best ensure that their children achieve full proficiency in both languages by providing rich experiences with each and especially with the language that might otherwise not get strong support in the extended community; for example, a minority language such as Spanish or Chinese in North America. It is important in this regard that parents who do not speak the majority language of the community continue to use their native language so that they expose their child to varied and rich ways of using language. This is difficult to do if parents use a language that they are not proficient in. It is also important for parents to maintain use of heritage languages in the home because it is part of the family culture and an important part of the child’s developing identity. It helps them feel unique and connected to their families.

Concern #3: Young bilingual children can’t keep their languages separate; they use both at the same time; they are obviously confused.

At some stage, most bilingual children use sounds and words from both languages in the same utterances or conversations even though the people talking with them are using only one language. Some parents and early childhood educators are concerned when they hear this because they believe that it means that the child is confused and cannot separate the two languages.

Research shows that this is not true. The main reason for children mixing their languages in these ways is because they lack sufficient vocabulary in one or both languages to express themselves entirely in each language. Thus, they borrow from the other language. Indeed, this is an effective communication strategy in most families because parents and other adults who care for bilingual children usually understand both languages and may mix the languages themselves when talking with the child.

Bilingual adults in some communities mix their languages extensively. Research has shown that the most proficient bilinguals mix the most and in the most sophisticated ways without violating the rules of either language. It is normal for children growing up in these communities to mix their languages extensively because they are simply learning the patterns of communication that are common in their community.

In any case, mixing languages is a natural and normal aspect of early bilingual acquisition, even among proficient adult bilinguals. Parents should not try to stop their children from mixing. Bilingual children will naturally stop doing it, unless of course mixing is a frequent form of language use in the community.

Concern #4: Using both languages in the same sentence or conversation is bad.

Parents can discourage and even prevent their children from doing this by making sure that each of them uses one and only one language with their child at all times. The same goes for other adults who interact with the child.

Research has shown that most bilingual children mix their languages sometimes no matter how much their parents mix, for the reasons mentioned earlier. As well, most parents mix their languages when talking with their young children because it is a natural and effective way of communicating with one another and their children. Because mixing languages is common among people who are bilingual, it can be difficult and unnatural, if not impossible, to keep the languages completely separate.

If most people in the children’s wider community use only one language, then there is probably no reason to worry about how much parents or children mix; the children will eventual learn the monolingual patterns.

Concern #5: What are the most important things for parents or early childhood educators to know about early childhood bilingualism?

There are number of important things to keep in mind:

  • Bilingual acquisition is a common and normal childhood experience.
  • All children are capable of learning two languages in childhood.
  • Knowing the language of one’s parents is an important and essential component of children’s cultural identity and sense of belonging.
  • Bilingual acquisition is facilitated if children have sustained, rich, and varied experiences in both languages.
  • Proficiency in both languages is more likely if children have sustained exposure in the home to the language that is used less extensively in the community; the language that is used more widely will get support outside the home.
  • Parents can facilitate bilingual proficiency by using the language they know best and by using it in varied and extensive ways.

Fred Genesee is Professor in the Psychology Department at McGill University, Montreal. He has served on the TESOL Board of Directors, Executive Committee of American Association for Applied Linguistics, ACTFL Foreign Language Standards Steering Committee, TESOL ESL Committee on Performance and Assessment Standards, and the National K-12 Foreign Language Resource Center. He has conducted extensive research on alternative forms of bilingual and immersion education and is currently conducting research on students who are at-risk for language and reading impairment in French immersion programs in Canada. He is the author numerous scientific research reports and books, including Dual Language Instruction: A Handbook for Enriched Education (Heinle & Heinle, 2000, with Nancy Cloud and Else Hamayan), Dual Language Development and Disorders (with J. Paradis & M. Crago, Brookes) and Educating English Language Learners (with K. Lindholm-Leary, W. Saunders, & D. Christian, Cambridge University Press). His current research interests include the language and literacy development of at-risk students in bilingual programs, language development in cross-language adopted children, and simultaneous bilinguals.

Reprinted with permission from Early Childhood NEWS.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Judie Haynes December 19, 2011 at 3:13 pm

Great article by a rock star in the field of language education! Thanks for sharing it.


2 Corey January 4, 2012 at 12:19 am

Thank you for your comment, Judie! You are so, so, so right about Prof. Genesee being a rock star in the field of language education! For bilingualism in general! Thank you for everything YOU do for language education, bilingual children, dual language learners and more! YOU are a rock star as well!!


3 Martina December 19, 2011 at 8:31 pm

So useful and interesting!
I particularly liked this part: “It is also important for parents to maintain use of heritage languages in the home because it is part of the family culture and an important part of the child’s developing identity. It helps them feel unique and connected to their families.”


4 Corey January 4, 2012 at 12:21 am

Thank you for pointing out that part, Martina! You are so right about that being such an important part of keeping our languages alive. This is such an important part of our lives and is so easily swept aside in favor of other things. So sad. Thank you for making sure we keep this reminder in our minds!


5 Melba January 10, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Interesting reading! I am currently pregnant with our first baby who will be brought up in a bilingual family. I definitely consider it a benefit although my partner worries that I eventually might gang up on him with the kid as he does not speak my language 😀

I worked with someone who had a 4-year old daughter. The child spoke three languages and I thought it was fabulous!


6 Corey January 11, 2012 at 1:16 am

Congratulations on your upcoming arrival! You should remind your partner that this is a great opportunity to learn your language! 😉 If he wants to stay up with his kids, he can start now and get a head start. Studies show that adults can actually learn a language more quickly than children but the key is that adults need to put in the time and focus that a child would when learning a language (and adults need to be able to just try out the language without worrying about mistakes – like kids do!). Enjoy preparing for your baby! You are going to have a wonderful bilingual adventure!


7 Tatiana January 28, 2012 at 4:12 am

Great article! Interesting advise not to worry about young children mixing languages. Our 3 year old daughter is being brought up bilingually and is mixing languages sometimes (uses minority language words that people in the community do not understand). I was worried and now I will worry less! In regards to concern # 1: our daughter is bilingual and she did have speech delay, didn’t speak (apart from a few words) untill almost 3 year old. I always had a feeling that if there was just one language she would start speaking sooner, but we didn’t give up (thanks to Corey – your site is a great support!). It was the right decision after all, she speaks both languages now, probably not as well as monolingual peers, but consiering that 2-3 months ago she was not even talking, she’s making pretty good progress.


8 Alex March 27, 2012 at 11:31 pm

I find it quite funny the mistakes that our children make- such as my little brother’s combination of ” Thank you ” and “Danke” = ” Shthanke”


9 Jeneffer January 2, 2014 at 2:34 am

I am from India where most children are bilingual and sometimes even multilingual. I started speaking early, too early in fact according to my parents who claim i was a pest while my sister started speaking a bit later when exposed to the same conditions. Being bilingual/multilingual is always an advantage. I cannot imagine knowing or expressing myself in only one language always. Most people in Indian cities today mix several languages in a single sentence while being completely aware of the varied nuances of each language. Preferences towards each language depend on the situation and the company around.


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