And the sooner the better, too, though you can learn a new language at any time; you’ll probably just learn it differently. Rather than mainly by hearing, once a person who can read begins to learn a new language, he usually prefers using written words to support his learning as well.
When parents are proficient in two languages, most choose to use the One Person One Language (OPOL) approach, where one parent consistently speaks to the child in one language and the other consistently uses the other language. Don’t worry, according to Ellen Bialystok, a professor at York University in Toronto and a leading researcher in bilingualism and cognition, “there is not a shred of evidence” that bilingualism causes children any confusion. Studies have found that even 2- to 4- month-old babies send out different brain signals in response to each language they are learning.*
Bialystok also refutes exaggerations that children who learn two languages will have higher IQs and better academic success. But the cognitive benefits outweigh any disadvantages.
Children being raised bilingual or multilingual from the very beginning do tend to speak later than monolingual children and may have smaller vocabularies in each language, but generally have the same size total vocabulary. They also catch up if development continues in each language. (Note: The adult needs to have adequate proficiency in the language. Magalie Olivier, a Haitian Kreyol bilingual teacher in Massachusetts, has remarked that if parents who don’t know enough English try to use it at home to help their children, the children actually come to school with too limited a vocabulary and too few concepts. Better to give your child one whole language).
Not surprisingly, bilingual youngsters show earlier abilities to sort information than monolinguals, and continue to be better at alternating between activities (for example, setting the table while cooking breakfast). They are also more willing to change their interpretations of optical-illusion-type pictures (is it a vase or a profile of a face?) than young monolinguals. Being able to see things differently is of course a major component of creativity.
Even if you are monolingual or your children are past babyhood, it’s possible to give them the gift of another language. Some parents commit to finding other language childcare providers, playgroups or schools. Some public school districts offer a two-way bilingual program where monolingual English speakers exchange language skills with English language learners from one other language group, often Spanish.
To get started, visit the Multilingual Children’s Association. Or for more research and anecdotes see Bernd Klein’s website or search for Ayxa Calero-Breckheimer’s blog [“coming soon”]. If you’ve already started, feel free to use the comments section to share your experience with other readers.
Thanks! (Related post: International Radio)
Szanto, Andras (2006, Oct/Nov). “Something to Speak Of” Cookie Magazine, p. 88-90.