McMaster University

McMaster University

Two languages can be a lifelong benefit

Hamilton Spectator
May 26, 2011
Dr. Olaf Kraus

Q: We are a bilingual family and our child is late to talk — should we only speak English?

A: In this world live 5,000 to 8,000 ethnic groups that speak about 5,000 different languages. It is estimated that about 50 per cent of the world is bilingual. Growing up listening to more than one language can therefore be considered something "normal."

Children who grow up learning two languages learn to speak at the same rate as children who grow up learning only one language. Acquiring two languages does not "cause" or make language disorders worse, it just complicates the process of diagnosing them. Why, then, is the popular belief so common that learning two languages could do some harm?

Many children who learn two languages at the same time use them in a mixed way. Outsiders easily get the impression that these children are not able to speak either language well.

What actually happens is that these children use the words that they learn in one language when referring to a context or situation that matches with that language. For example, they will switch to English when referring to something they observed at school, day care or on TV and then they switch back to their native language when referring to events or activities related to the family environment. This is called "code switching."

Code switching is similar to the way doctors may speak to a patient when explaining a health condition, mixing in words that are technical and usually part of their professional language "code". People not used to hearing that ‘code' have difficulties understanding these technical words and sometimes feel like they are talking with somebody who speaks a foreign language or isn't a good communicator.

Children with developmental disabilities also are not negatively affected by being exposed to two languages at the same time. Research shows that children with Down syndrome who grew up in a bilingual environment did not present with a lower language score when compared to children who grew up learning only one language.

These children can learn the second language because, when the children are young, learning language is through hearing it and using it in everyday situations. At this age, learning a language does not need to occur through formal teaching.

Once children with developmental problems are older, over 10 years of age, they depend much more on their thinking abilities and formal teaching to learn a second language and, as a result, may have significant challenges, similar to how an adult struggles more to learn a new language.

Bilingualism does not harm the brain, but it also does not make children more intelligent. However, it seems to improve one's ability to switch from one task to another and may be beneficial in developing skills in attention and focus control.

In the older population, it was recently found that bilingual patients developed symptoms of Alzheimer's disease several years later than a comparison group of people who only knew one language. So knowing two languages can be a lifelong benefit.

House Call is written weekly by experts at Hamilton Health Sciences.

Dr. Olaf Kraus de Camargo is a developmental pediatrician and Amber Cauwenbergs is a speech language pathologist at McMaster Children's Hospital.

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