What You Need to Know about Bilingual Children

There are language specialists everywhere who unanimously share the opinion that exposing a child to two languages is the best way to become bilingual. They also agree that language acquisition ability declines after the age of 6 or 7. Language exposure can begin during pregnancy, according to a report by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council in the U.S.. In fact, it is said that the optimal age for early language acquisition is from about the 34th week of pregnancy until about 12 months old. This is a time when brain synapses are forming.  Personally, I believe that, simply because I began to read to my children in utero, before birth, this promoted their early literacy. From my first born, reading at age 3, the preparedness for academic success was solidly grounded. I must say that it totally paid off in terms of school and life trajectory!


IMG_0160This totally precious one year old  knows baby sign language and her English language development is now accelerating to the point of skipping past ‘baby talk’. She is speaking fully intelligible words at 16 months old.

Let’s talk TYPES of bilingualism.

Early Bilingualism

There are two types of early bilingualism: Simultaneous early bilingualism and Consecutive[or Successive] early bilingualism. Simultaneous refers to children who learn two languages at the same time-from birth. Generally producing a stronger bilingualism, called Additive Bilingualism[ discussed below], this also implies that a child’s language development is bilingual, as well.

Successive early bilingualism refers to children who’ve already acquired their first language and then learn a second language early in childhood. An example of this is what we tend to see in our public school systems across the country. Children who move to a location or country where the dominant language isn’t their native or first language. This also generally produces a strong bilingualism[additive]. The child will have to be given time to learn this second language as he or she is learning the first and second as he or she learns to speak. Hence, this implies that language development is partly bilingual.

Late Bilingualism

This type refers to second language development after age 6 or 7[school-age], and especially when learned in adolescence or adulthood. Late bilingualism is a consecutive type which occurs after the acquisition of the primary language, after the childhood language development period. With an acquired first language, late bilinguals will use their experiences to learn the second language.

Additive Bilingualism & Subtractive Bilingualism

Additive bilingualism refers to a person who ha acquired two languages in a somewhat balanced manner. Subtractive refers to situations in which learning a second language comes to the detriment of the first. This is especially true when the primary language is a minority one. In this scenario, mastery of the primary language decreases, while mastery of the second language increases. We see this when a person who had learned their first language, moved away as young children, and then stopped speaking it. A loss of mastery renders them unable to converse in their primary language. This person may recognize spoken and written words, but the recall has suffered, due to the now dominant language.

Passive Bilingualism

This type of early bilingualism refers to being able to understand a second language without being able to speak it conversationally. Children who respond relevant and appropriately in English when addressed in Spanish, for example, could become passive bilinguals, as their oral expression in their native language[Spanish] decreases. A parent may speak to their child in the home language and the child often will respond in English or a mixture thereof. Acquiring the dominant language, English in this case, has overshadowed the original language center in the brain, and now thinking, processing thoughts, is done primarily in this dominant language.

Myth: “First, let’s strengthen the first language ,and the second will come later.”

Some people think that by exposing a child to a second language at an early age will prevent the child from ‘transferring’ knowledge learned into that new language. The reality is that even though the child could be learning a second language well at an early age, by not teaching or exposing that child to a second language, we may be depriving him or her of valuable years of optimal learning.

Myth: “Bilingualism is a rare phenomenon.”

Bilingualism is a phenomenon that exists all over the world, on all continents and in almost every country.  As a matter of fact, in any metropolitan city, or not so metropolitan city,  we all encounter bilinguals on an everyday basis. In America, particularly, there is an implied arrogance, accompanied by a demand to ‘Speak English!” So, one could say that we openly encourage bilingualism.

The country with the largest number of spoken languages is on the island of New Guinea[over 830 languages]. Canada has over 76 different spoken languages. In general,  for countries where two or more languages are spoken, the language speakers, racial, cultural or ethnic- will very rarely have the same population, legal or social status. Additionally, their geographical location is often different, as well. Hence,  in many cities you have places called: Little Italy, Chinatown, etc…. Ahhh, the diversity!

Real human compromise doesn’t demand immediate conformity by others, but rather that we begin to acquire new language competencies for more effective communication with our neighbors, colleagues, friends and family. There is a whole new demand for bilingualism in today’s workforce, and its ‘rarity’ is so sought after, many industries incentivize and reward employees who possess mastery in multiple languages. Encourage and support early bilingualism! It, too, will pay off!

Are you bilingual? If so, was it an early language acquisition or late, after age 7-adulthood? If not, why not learn a new language today! ¡Adios!



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