In 2019, approximately 23% of children in the United States were bilingual. Speaking more than one language implies education and competency. Popular media glamourizes bilingualism as a chic quality obtained by social elites. Recently, Princess Charlotte and Prince George received praise for being able to speak more than one language. A 2013 report finds that Spanish is the most spoken foreign language in the U.S., with three out of four Hispanic kids aged five and up speaking Spanish at home. With online learning becoming the norm and inexpensive language-assisting apps available, helping your child learn a second language can be a great way to keep them engaged and educationally enriched.
The Best Time to Learn A New Language
Amazingly, babies have nearly twice as many brain cells as adults. These brain cells, called neurons, reduce in number as we age and become specialized to most efficiently perform complex tasks. One of these tasks includes language.
In the first few years of life, our brains are exquisitely receptive as we onload a boom in vocabulary. As our brains mature and specialize throughout childhood, the ease of learning language decreases. This is due to our brain gradually remodeling as we age by refining neuronal pathways. As a result of this complex genetically blueprinted growth process, we become better thinker, but less receptive to mass learning.
The bottom line is that we learn language best when we are very young. There is even evidence that hearing the unique sounds of particular languages in utero makes a difference later on! By encouraging bilingualism before your child reaches adulthood, you are optimizing language mastery.
Effects on Thinking
Contrary to the belief that learning a second language may impede primary language learning, psychologist Adam Winsler and colleagues conducted studies with native Spanish speaking preschool children learning a second language (English). They found that preschool age children were able to competently achieve fluency in both languages while engaged in both the bilingual immersion program and the exposure program. This said, children in the preschool program have exceptional gains in learning.
Along with language competency, bilingualism may help with the development of other complex tasks like working memory and problem solving. Working memory is the limited amount of information we can briefly store in our mind as we solve a problem like completing math problems or following the steps to bake a cake. A study by Daubert and Ramani found that bilingual preschoolers did better on working memory tests than monolingual preschoolers.
Effects on Brain Development
Although we are still learning how our brains are impacted by learning a new language, there is evidence that the neurological remodeling discussed earlier can be impacted in positive ways. For instance, developmental researcher Maria Mercedes Arredondo analyzed brain scans of monolingual children and bilingual children. She found that during a linguistics challenge, bilingual children had less activity in the left frontal region of the brain which is associated with language. This suggests that bilingual children process information more efficiently, thus needing fewer resources for complex linguistic tasks. Bilingual children also show greater brain activation with brain networks related to attention. The implications of this finding are that bilingualism may improve one’s attentional abilities.
The Drawbacks of Bilingualism
It is generally accepted that learning two languages is beneficial for children, but there can be temporary drawbacks. A common drawback is that young bilingual children tend to mix the grammatical rules of the two languages. For instance, if English is your child’s primary language and Spanish is their second, your child may say the literal English translation of a phrase like “At what time are you coming?” to the grammatically incorrect Spanish phrase “A que hora eres tu veniendo,” when it should actually be “A que hora vienes.”
Another finding is that young bilingual children are more likely to have a “silent period,” where they choose not to talk as much for a few months. It is as if their brains are preoccupied laying down the foundation necessary for more complex learning. Fortunately, these windows of silence are temporary. When considering the pros and cons, the benefits of bilingualism strongly outweigh the temporary cons in the long run for most kids.
Of course, every child is different. Some children have an extra hurdle with language learning called a Specific Language Impairment (SLI). Children with SLI develop language fluency slower than their peers, but are not impacted in any other abilities. A research review by speech-language pathologist Lauren Lowry notes that while children with SLI learn language slower, learning a new language has not consistently shown to hamper their primary language. While research has been mixed, the majority of results note similar results with language proficiency between bilingual children with SLI and monolingual children with SLI.
GKIS-Recommended Language Learning Apps
If you are interested in challenging your kids with bilingual education, here are four great language learning apps we recommend:
The Duolingo app offers courses for over 35 different languages and includes tools to learn vocabulary, put together sentences, practice pronunciation, translate audio to text, and how to have discussions in the new language. This is a free app that tracks progress along the way and is great for kids and teens.
Beelinguapp is a fun app that offers 13 popular languages and provides e-stories that contain both the primary language and the new language to aid learning. Stories come in wide ranges and make learning a new language fun! Some of the stories are behind a paywall.
Drops is a free app that offers over 40 languages and helps the user learn vocabulary, utilize the new vocab, understand pronunciations, and provides statistics of the user’s progress. It is particularly great for teens.
Unuhi: Bilingual Books
Unuhi is a free app that provides e-picture books in 20 common languages. Each page has two boxes of text, one for the primary language and one that has the same content, but in the new language. This app is geared towards children and some e-books are only available with purchase.
Language-learning apps typically offer exercises to learn vocabulary and pronunciation, hone reading comprehension, and mindfully use the new language in conversation. Once a foundation for learning has been set, you can reinforce learning by:
- Watching television programming in the new language
- Reading easy books in that language, and
- Frequently switching between the primary language and the new language for real-world application and practice.
To optimize the balance between online and offline learning, check out our Connected Family Course. Specifically designed for clever smart home setup, the Connected Family Course offers 10 easy steps for creative safe-screen home setup and fun parenting techniques for sensible screen management. Our expert techniques take the “battle” out of parenting in less than two hours!
I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.
Onward to More Awesome Parenting,
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty
Kids Count. Children who speak a language other than English at home: KIDS COUNT Data Center. Retrieved from https://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/tables/81-children-who-speak-a-language-other-than-english-at-home
Krogstad, J. M., & Gonzalez-Barrera, A. (2015, March 24). A majority of English-speaking Hispanics in the U.S. are bilingual. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/03/24/a-majority-of-english-speaking-hispanics-in-the-u-s-are-bilingual/
Winsler, A., Diaz, R., & Espinosa, L. (1997, January). Learning a Second Language Does Not Mean Losing the First: A Replication and Follow-up of Bilingual Language Development in Spanish-Speaking Children Attending Bilingual Preschool. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/234714239_Learning_a_Second_Language_Does_Not_Mean_Losing_the_First_A_Replication_and_Follow-up_of_Bilingual_Language_Development_in_Spanish-Speaking_Children_Attending_Bilingual_Preschool
 Daubert, E. N., & Ramani, G. B. (2019). Math and memory in bilingual preschoolers: The relations between bilingualism, working memory, and numerical knowledge. Journal of Cognition and Development, 20(3), 314–333. https://doi-org.summit.csuci.edu/10.1080/15248372.2019.1565536
Arredondo, M. M. (2018). A bilingual advantage?: The functional organization of linguistic competition and attentional networks in the bilingual developing brain. In Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering (Vol. 78, Issue 11–B(E)).
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Learning Two Languages. Retrieved from https://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/learning-two-languages/
Lowry, L. (2016). Can children with learning language impairments learn two languages? Retrieved from http://www.hanen.org/helpful-info/articles/can-children-with-language-impairments-learn-two-l