September, 2013: FAQs are in the process of being updated.
- Information about early bilingualism
- Information about English second language learning
- Information about speech-language assessment and intervention with English second language learners
For more detailed information on these topics with references to research, please consult the publications listed in Additional Resources.
1.1 Many terms are used to describe children who know more than one language: bilinguals, dual language learners, ESL, ELL and EAL. What do these terms mean and do some of them refer to the same children?
Bilingual is the more general term, and describes a child who knows and uses two languages, even if that child’s abilities in the two languages are not equal. Some bilingual children learn their two languages simultaneously from birth, and other bilingual children learn their two languages sequentially, where one language is established before a second or additional language is introduced. Sequential bilinguals whose second or additional language is English are described by terms like English second language (ESL), English as an additional language (EAL), and English language learners (ELL). There is no consensus on what age divides simultaneous and sequential bilinguals, but many researchers consider age 3 to be a reasonable choice for dividing the two groups.
1.2 Does learning two languages at a young age – even in infancy - cause a delay in language development?
There is a great deal of evidence that infants and young children can learn two languages very successfully. The early milestones of language development happen at the same time for children who learn one language or two. For example, they babble the same way as monolingual infants, they produce their first words around their first birthday (range is roughly 10-14 months), and begin to combine words into two or three word “sentences” around two years of age (range is roughly 18-26 months). As bilingual children grow older, there are some differences between their language use and growth when compared to monolingual children, but these differences are completely normal, and should not be a cause for concern, or considered a signal of speech-language disorder. For example, bilingual children may mix their two languages together in one sentence, and they may be more proficient in one of their languages than the other in terms of their vocabulary and grammar. The language bilingual children are more proficient in is usually the language they speak and hear the most. Given enough time and exposure, they typically catch up in their less proficient language. In the preschool and early school-age years, bilingual children often have smaller vocabularies in each language than monolinguals, but if their two vocabularies are combined, and all the words that are translation equivalents removed, bilinguals have similar or larger vocabularies than monolinguals their own age. Over time in school, bilinguals often, but not always, close the vocabulary gap with monolinguals, in at least one of their languages. Bilingual children in the older preschool and early school age years may take a little longer than monolinguals to perfect the finer points of their languages. For example, in English, the past tense includes numerous irregular verbs, dig-dug, sing-sang, catch-caught, as well as verbs that take “-ed” for the past tense, talk-talked, help-helped. When English is one language of a bilingual child, that child might make more errors with the irregular verbs than monolingual English-speaking children the same age by saying “digged” instead of “dig” or “catched” instead of “caught”. Again, with time and sufficient exposure to English, particularly written English in school, bilingual children will eventually perfect these finer points of the language.
1.3 Does early bilingualism come with some advantages for children?
Arguably, the most significant advantage of being bilingual is the ability to communicate in more than one language. But, research has shown that bilingualism confers some non-linguistic cognitive benefits on children. One example is in the domain of basic reading skills. Bilingual children often show superiority in phonological awareness – awareness that words are composed of individual sounds – and superior phonological awareness is associated with superior skills at decoding written words. Another example is in the cognitive domain labeled executive functions. In experimental settings, bilingual children have shown stronger abilities to ignore background or distracting information and concentrate on the primary task at hand. Other research has uncovered additional and possibly related cognitive domains where bilingual children seem to have an advantage over their monolinguals peers, but phonological awareness and executive functions have been studied the most. Importantly, bilingual proficiency matters for these cognitive benefits. Bilingual children who are not yet proficient in one of their two languages are less likely to display any of these benefits. It is also important to keep in mind that these advantages might be subtle in many children; in other words, bilingualism does not create “super kids”.
1.4 Does early bilingualism cause some disadvantages for children?
This question is closely related to question 1.2 above. On the one hand, having a smaller vocabulary in one or both languages when compared with monolingual age peers could impact early reading skills, since it is well-known that vocabulary size and reading abilities are related. On the other hand, this might be off-set by the cognitive advantages of early bilingualism (see question 1.3), but there is insufficient research examining this directly for us to know for sure. Furthermore, research that indicates bilinguals to be at a disadvantage compared to monolinguals often confuses bilingualism with other factors, such as lower socio-economic status and marginalization of some minority groups, and bilingual children’s lack of proficiency in the majority societal language (the language being tested). When considering the alleged “disadvantages” of bilingualism, educators and clinicians need to be aware of such potential biases in the research that claims bilingualism to be a disadvantage.
1.5 Bilingual children sometimes mix words from their two languages in one sentence. Is this a behaviour that should be corrected? Is this a sign that they are struggling with bilingualism?
This kind of bilingual language use is called “code-mixing” or “code-switching”. The academic community knows that code-mixing is a highly skilled form of language use and is a natural form of language use among bilingual individuals and in bilingual communities. The rules for how to combine the two languages that are obeyed by bilingual speakers are quite sophisticated (even if the speakers are unaware of this), and the social situations where code-mixing is frequent varies across bilingual families and communities, but it is considered to be a rich and complex form of discourse. Unfortunately, sometimes code-mixing is viewed negatively by health and education professionals who mistakenly see it as a barrier to children’s language development. All bilinguals of all ages code-mix sometimes, and this is not a sign of confusion, or of language disorder. Regarding young, preschool-age bilinguals, the reasons why they code-mix can vary. Most of the time, children this age will code-mix more when they are having a conversation in the language they are less proficient in. (Young bilingual children are seldom equally proficient in both their languages.) Sometimes, bilingual children will choose words based on how familiar they are with them, rather than based on what language they come from, and thus, end up mixing languages in one sentence. But, research shows that young bilingual children are very sensitive to the language abilities and preferences of their conversation partners. Even two-year-old bilinguals will use more of the language preferred by their conversation partner, if not exclusively that language. By age four, bilingual children become sensitive to the language use in the community and will be aware of which language is more appropriate for use in public places. Also by age four, bilingual children typically have developed sufficient vocabulary in both their languages so that they can stay with one language during a conversation, instead of code-mixing to fill vocabulary gaps. Bilingual children will adapt to the language patterns of the household and community, so if code-mixing is common, they will adapt to that pattern, and if code-mixing is uncommon, they will learn to separate their languages. Even bilingual children who have language disorders do not code-mix excessively, but instead make the same choices about which language to use as their typically-developing peers.
2.1 When is the best time to introduce a second language? Should children learn one language fully before starting to learn a second language?
Many children grow up in what are called ‘one-parent-one-language’ homes. These are families where the father and the mother each speaks a different language to the child from birth. These simultaneous bilingual children learn two languages right from the beginning, and there is no evidence that this makes them confused, or that they never learn to speak their languages properly. So, it is not necessary to wait until the first language is developed before introducing a second one in all circumstances. What is more important is whether a language is a minority language in the community or wider society. For example, children who speak a minority language at home with their parents and will be going to school in the majority language of the community could be at risk for losing their first language if they begin to learn the community language too early and if the entire family slowly switches over to using the community language at home. This situation is all too common in immigrant families in Canada where English often becomes the dominant language at home, at school and in the wider community. A contrasting example is children who speak the majority language of the community as their first language, but who attend immersion education in a minority language - like English-speaking children in French immersion in western Canada. These children are not at risk of losing their first language no matter when the second language is introduced. Finally, if the goal is for children to grow up speaking a second language like a native-speaker in terms of pronunciation and grammar, then it is advisable to introduce the second language before the ages of 6-8 years, or at least before adolescence.
2.2 How long does it take for ESL children to develop the same competence in English as English native-speaker children?
The answer to this question is important not only for setting appropriate expectations for ESL children’s language development, but also for interpreting the results of language assessments and other evaluations of children’s abilities that have a language component. There is no single answer to this question because ESL children catch up to native-speakers for different aspects of language at different times, following different patterns. Generally, ESL children can gain full proficiency in using English for basic, interpersonal communication in about 2-5 years of full-time exposure to English through schooling. By contrast, it can take about 5-7 years for ESL children to be indistinguishable from native-speakers in their use of English for academic purposes, both spoken and written. ESL children’s acquisition of English vocabulary shows rapid growth in the early elementary school years, but recent research suggests that their vocabulary growth levels off somewhat below that of their native-speaker peers toward the end of elementary school – leaving open the question of whether they ever catch up in vocabulary size to monolingual native-speakers. ESL children who begin to learn English before the ages of 6-8 years can achieve pronunciation and grammatical abilities parallel to those of native-speakers; however, they can take 3-5 years to do so.
Answer to come.
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