Bilingual Baby: Why Two Languages Is Better Than One

Becky Dickinson looks at the benefits of exposing children to languages in early childhood.

Every day, when my partner walks in from work, something strange happens to our three children.

They’ll stop what they’re doing and run up to him with shouts of “Ciao papa!” and  “Guarda, papa!” (Look, papa!).

Despite having spoken English all day, it’s as if a switch goes on and they start talking in Italian, at least for the next few minutes.

I’m English and my partner is Italian, and we made a conscious decision to raise our children bilingually from birth. It wasn’t something we researched, we just decided that we would speak to them in our respective mother tongues, partly so they’d be able to communicate with their non-English speaking relatives abroad.

Yet, for children who can speak an additional language, there are a raft of benefits besides being able to ask for an orange juice in another country. Jane Fox is mother tongue coordinator at ACS Egham International School, where languages are key. She says, “It’s clear that developing early bilingualism in children has several cognitive benefits, including cultural insight and empathy, enrichment of one language by the other, an expansion of one’s world – more literature, films, enhanced travel experiences – and enhanced employability.”

It’s well known that fluency in an extra language makes it easier to learn other languages, too. But research has also shown that languages can help children in other areas as well, especially when it comes to focusing attention. One famous example is the Stroop Effect experiment. In this test, participants see colour words that are printed in different colours, such as the word red printed in the colour blue, and they have to say what colour the word is. Strangely, bilinguals are able to do this faster than monolinguals.

Dr Matthew Watson, a psychology lecturer at the University of Sunderland, says it’s all to do with conflicting information. “Bilinguals have both languages activated in their minds at all times, so there is always this sort of conflict about word selection. This means bilinguals become better at this sort of attentional control and this then transfers to non-linguistic tasks.”

When it comes to acquiring an additional language, children who are born into mixed nationality families have an obvious advantage. Though, as Jane points out, there’s still no room for complacency if you want to ensure you child grows up bilingual. She says: “Each parent should use the language they speak best to communicate with their child, and do it consistently. Expect them to use that language when they respond to you. Consistent use of your home language can become challenging when your child is immersed in a setting that uses a different tongue and he or she becomes more apt to respond to you in the language that has become most familiar.”

If both husband and wife speak the same language, there are still plenty of ways to raise a linguist. For example, encouraging friends, or perhaps an au pair, to speak in their native tongue to your children.

Jane recommends maximising exposure to the language you want your children to learn. “When the target language isn’t part of your daily language use, the clue is to build a purpose for using it, and doing so frequently,” she says. “For example, take up karate in Japanese, or dance classes in Spanish, watch movies or programmes in the target language with the subtitles turned off, make friends with people who speak the target language fluently. Nothing beats immersion, though, and travel to the places where the language
is spoken is invaluable.”

Another mum who believes in the value of raising children to speak additional languages is Mona Urbain of She speaks English, French, Arabic, Farsi and Italian, and says, “My husband and I started speaking to our kids in our respective languages literally from the day they were born. I think it’s such a shame for non-English parents not to teach their kids their mother tongue. Children learn languages effortlessly, they just pick it up without having to think about it.”

Mona admits she’s lucky to be able to pass on her own languages to her children, but says, “For monolingual parents there are more and more workshops, play groups and foreign language tuition for kids, especially in such cosmopolitan cities like London. In Paris, people put so much effort into providing English tuition for their children and they usually start them as young as three years old.”

Whether or not more than one language is spoken in the home, the key to raising young linguists is to start from birth. You could even prepare for this during pregnancy, by seeking out books and nursery rhymes in other languages. “Languages are about cadence, tone and rhythm as much as they are about grammar and structure,” says Jane. “Children pick up on this before they can even produce recognisable languages of their own. The earlier they are exposed to language, the better it is for their pre-literacy.”

With this is mind, perhaps one of the reasons that British people are so famously poor at speaking other languages is because of the lack of importance languages are often given in early education. If a child doesn’t start learning, say French, until they reach secondary school, they are already at a disadvantage. According to Dr Watson, “If a person is monolingual until after the age of 14, they rarely gain true proficiency of a second language. There is not usually a problem learning words of a second language, as that relies on the semantic memory part of the mind. However, learning the rules of grammar is very difficult. It is therefore best to learn any languages as early as possible.’’

This probably explains why my own attempts to converse in Italian are usually met with hilarity and correction by my own children. But while it may be too late for many adults to gain fluency in another tongue, it’s not too late to help our children benefit from the advantages of speaking more than one language. At the very least, hopefully they’ll be grateful for a free GCSE in the future.