Is “the earlier, the better” always best? A linguist demystifies common myths about bilingual learning in children
How do you begin to introduce children to a new language? When do you begin? And how do you know how well they’re progressing? Like many aspects of child development, learning a new language falls on a continuum and progress varies from child to child. Still, research in language learning does detail five stages of second language acquisition that can serve as a helpful roadmap for parents.
To describe bilinguals, experts in the field often refer to children as simultaneous bilinguals or sequential bilinguals (also referred to as successive bilinguals). Simultaneous bilinguals are children from birth to three-years-old, who learn two languages at the same time. These children go through the same developmental stages as those learning one language. Parents of simultaneous bilinguals often become worried because their children might begin speaking slightly later than monolingual children. Still, this should not be diagnosed as a “language delay” because bilinguals still start to talk within the typical age range. After all, they are learning double the vocabulary in half the time.
Sequential bilinguals are children who learn a second language after a first language is already established. For this reason, sequential bilinguals begin learning the second language after the age of three. Despite the myth that “earlier is better”, sequential bilinguals who pick up a language later are also able to attain native-like fluency in two languages. They will, however, move through the stages of second language development outlined in the graphic below.
The remainder of this article describes the five stages of second language acquisition (SLA), answering three critical questions that all parents should know: What should you expect at this stage? What might you hear? And what can you do about it?
Research demonstrates that for sequential bilinguals to progress quickly through the stages of second language acquisition, they should have a firm foundation in their first language. So here are a few important considerations:
- Although perfect bilingualism is often considered the gold standard, remember that bilingualism is dynamic and serves many purposes. Don’t be discouraged if your child is not able to attain native-like fluency.
- Remember that language learning is hard no matter what age you are. Set expectations for your children but remember that interest and motivation play a critical role in language learning as well.
- Language is tied to culture. Go on language adventures that allow children to also experience the culture. Read books that feature culturally-relevant characters who speak the target language (or better yet, who are bilingual!).