It’s my first post and I’ve chosen a very big and complicated topic… but it’s a topic that I find both very interesting and personally very relevant right now (and it seems that other people find it interesting too). You see, I’m a bilingual – I can speak, read, and write in two languages (Hebrew and English). But what makes my interest more pressing is that my kids are (or will be, in the case of the 9 months old) bilingual. We speak Hebrew at home, but their environment, including daycare, neighbors, and play groups are all English- and sometimes French-speaking. You can see how I’m naturally attracted to this topic. So bear with me, I’m going to give a little review of what research is talking about right now, and then talk about some big questions that arise from what we know about bilingualism.
Generally speaking, there are both advantages and disadvantages to being bilingual. From a language perspective, bilinguals have a smaller vocabulary in each of the language than monolingual. A very cool finding is that monolinguals and bilinguals tend to have the same vocabulary for settings in which both are experiencing the same language. Bilingual children score lower in vocabulary that is associated with their non-tested language. So, for instance, a child who speaks Spanish at home but goes to an English-speaking school would have lower scores than a monolingual child (English speaking, in this case) in words that are associated with home settings (such as squash or pitcher), but would have a comparable score in school-related words (such as writing or rectangle). Makes sense, doesn’t it? The kid is speaking Spanish at home, so there’s really no reason for her to know the English word for camcorder. These findings come from the awesome research done by Dr. Ellen Bialystok and her colleagues at York University – Dr. Bialystok has been researching bilingualism for years, and coming up with very interesting findings.
A clear advantage that bilinguals have is in terms of their cognitive control skills. It seems that because they constantly have to shift between languages and inputs, bilingual children become really good at shifting. Shifting is a term used by researchers to refer to the ability to control your attention and your response to whatever it is that you are paying attention to. Researchers have found, for instance, that 7 months old babies (babies!!) who are “crib bilinguals” (that is, they have one caregiver that speaks one language and another who speaks a different language) are better at un-learning something that is no longer true and re-learning a new association. The bilingual babies have better cognitive control skills than the monolingual babies, presumably because they have more practice at switching between languages. In addition, it seems that dementia in old age is delayed for bilinguals when compared to monolinguals, but by the time people are in their 70s, it’s really hard to know what is causing this difference.
OK, so there are mostly advantages from a cognitive perspective. What about social aspects? Dr. Wen-Jui of Columbia University looked into that, and she found that bilingual children are doing better than their monolingual peers in terms of their interpersonal skills. What I found interesting is that she didn’t look for popularity or actual skills (these were teacher reports). When I grew up, if your parents talked to you in a different language you were an outsider, an easy target for picking on. So I would be concerned about the child’s fitting in socially – and I could not find any research that looked into that. But I don’t get the sense here with my kids that they are outsiders because they can speak another language. Maybe it’s because in the daycare my son attends more than half the kids in his group speak another language at home, whether it’s Arabic, Chinese, French, or Hebrew.
Does that mean you should start speaking a foreign language with your child? Enroll your preschooler to a Mandarin course? Not really. The child has to be a true bilingual for the benefits to kick in – you can’t fake it. What about immersion programs, then? Well, they have pros and cons as well. We talked about the French immersion program here in Canada in my lab, and some people said, for instance, that they felt the teachers were not as good as the teachers in the English-only programs. That is to say, in Ontario at least, there aren’t enough math teachers who are fluent in French to raise the bar. For me as a parent, there’s a big decision that I’ll have to face in a couple of years: should we enroll our kids in a French immersion program to give them fluency in a third language – a language that would help them later in life should we and they choose to stay here in Canada? Or are three languages too much?
So what I’d really like is to hear more opinions. Did you attend an immersion program? Are you a bilingual? Are your kids? Are you a teacher? I would love to hear opinions! If you don’t feel comfortable leaving a public comment, feel free to email me and I’ll make sure your voice is heard.