The Bilingual Paradox

In Uncategorized on May 14, 2012 at 4:18 pm

When it comes to exposing children to more than one language, there is a dilemma that every caregiver experiences. On the one hand, we realize that children pick up languages easily. On the other hand, we worry that given the complexity of language acquisition, exposure to two or more languages will cause language confusion and developmental delay. This dilemma has often been called “the bilingual paradox,” the simultaneous belief that exposure to more than one language is both good and bad. With this post we will attempt to shed some light on a couple of the issues that plague caregivers in bilingual environments. However, as we are only touching upon the tip of the iceberg, we would like to invite you to share with us your experiences, thoughts and questions on this topic.

Will infants who are exposed to two languages experience linguistic delay?

Most parents express the following concern:  will my bilingual child start talking later than monolingual children? In other words, will language overload lead to developmental delay?  Evidence from research does not support the notion that bilingual children will experience delay.  In fact, it appears that bilingual and monolingual language development happens within the same developmental time frame. Researchers[i]  explain that bilingual children reach linguistic developmental milestones at the same time as monolingual children. Canonical babbling (babbling using properly formed single syllables), begins at the same age on average in both monolingual and bilingual children[ii].  The average age for the first word is the same for both groups. Finally, phonetic representation for language happens in same way and within the same course of time whether a child is bilingual or monolingual[iii]. The natural variation you would see in language development among monolingual children (first word anywhere between 11 and 14 months) is the same natural variation you would see among bilingual children. In most cases, anecdotal evidence supporting linguistic delay can easily be attributed to this natural variation among individual children rather than to linguistic overload.

Will bilingual children experience language confusion? 

Often, bilingual children will rely on both languages while speaking to someone, a phenomenon known as code switching. This is often a source of worry for parents and teachers who might view this as language confusion. The truth is children do mix elements of their two languages. However, research shows that mixing actually follows regular grammatical patterns. This indicates that the root of mixing is not confusion, but sociolinguistic factors within the child’s environment. Language mixing is influenced by various factors: the language being used by adults around them, their parents’ own patterns of code switching, and a preference for one language over another.  However, although children demonstrate awareness of language context (example speaking Arabic with Arabic speakers, English with English speakers), they do not always consistently use the language the speaker is using. This, it was found, related more to the degree in which parents code switched rather than to instances of language confusion. Children who grow up in households where two languages are used interchangeably within single speech contexts are likely to reflect that sociolinguistic pattern in their own speech[iv].

The above two questions are only a speck in the ocean of questions caregivers ask themselves when raising bilingual children. For that reason, we would like to invite you again to share your experiences, questions and comments with us as we tackle more topics in early childhood language acquisition.

[i] See Kovacs & Mehler (2009). Flexible learning of multiple speech structures in bilingual infants. Science 325, 611-612. See Pearson, B. Z., Fernandez, S. C. & Oller, D. K. (1995). Cross-language synonyms in the lexicons of bilingual infants: one language or two? Journal of Child Language 22, 345-67

[ii]  See Bilingual infants are not delayed in their language development Published on December 9, 2010 by Francois Grosjean, Ph.D. in Life as a Bilingual

[iii] See Janet F. Werker’s work at the Infant Studies Center

[iv] See Petitto L.A. (2001). Bilingual signed and spoken language acquisition from birth: implications for the mechanisms underlying early bilingual language acquisition, Journal of Child Language 28, 453-96

  1. Thank you for a perceptive and ressuring article. I had two children in the 1970s. We used English at home. I tried to use both Arabic and French periodically. I did worry about so-called linguistic confusion especially with our eldest daughter Catherine. She did appear to look confused or bewildered whenever I switched languages. Eventually, I am ashamed to admit that, like many lazy parents, I did not make an effort. However, over thirty years later, Catherine is a fluent user of English, French and Russian. Her early multi-lingual experiences paid off. By the time our son Richard arrived, we had almost given up. Fortunately, Richard was a bright fellow and so, after thirty years and several visits to Beirut, he has a passable understanding of both Arabic and French.

    So, our children succeeded in acquiring more than one language despite our lamentable omission. Still, I regret falling for Catherine’s huge quizzical eyes looking wonderingly at me whenever I switched languages. I should have persisted.

  2. Thanks for sharing Faysal! There’s something to be said about passive languages (maybe a new post?). They’re both multilingual now, so some of your effort has definitely paid off!

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