Children: two languages or just one?

At present, many parents are faced with the dilemma of whether to raise their children bilingually or not. There is concern about possible consequences. Families from mixed backgrounds and parents who know different languages may desire to pass on the languages to their  children for many reasons: To give children access to both languages, maintain the parent’s heritage or promote cognitive advantages.

Research shows that levels of native-like proficiency in bilingual individuals is determined by the age of acquisition (AoA) (Johnson and Newport, 1989). The critical period hypothesis explains that language sensitivity is at peak before adolescence, thus early exposure is advised. Lenneberg (1967) indicates that the ability to learn languages declines rapidly at about thirteen years of age. This does not imply that after such age it is impossible to learn languages. Lenneberg’s point is that during childhood languages are learnt almost automatically with little effort, but that after this stage learning requires a conscious effort. Speaking to infants in the different languages since birth enhances their learning of languages. For example, Eilers et al. (1982) found that infants exposed to bilingual input maintained the phonemic recognition of the two languages which was lost in their monolingual counterparts. This discrimination of linguistic sounds is lost at about ten months of age if the input for that particular language is absent.

The most researched cognitive advantage of bilingualism is metalinguistic awareness – the ability to bring linguistic knowledge and skills into conscious awareness, therefore, being able to transfer these across languages. This is evident in code-switching and translation. Children do not get confused with multiple languages and can differentiate between the them. Inference (shifting elements of one language onto another one) does not mean that the child cannot tell one language from another. It just means that proficiency levels are higher in the language being shifted, e.g. the lexical item label is only known or is more accessible, due to higher frequency of usage, in the other language.

However, some theorists still hold that learning another language comes at a cost, especially for children developing their first language. It is argued that the consequences are detrimental and have a long-lasting effect. For instance vocabulary is affected. Macnamara (1966) examined various comparative vocabulary tests and concluded that monolinguals have higher vocabulary levels compared to their bilingual counterparts. Therefore those that only speak one language have, presumably, better knowledge of that language. Other research, such as Pearson et al. (1993), consistently find similar results that support this perspective. However, the problem with these forms of testing is that they normally just test one of the languages of the bilingual (normally the  culturally dominant one) and it does not take into account that the total size of vocabulary is larger in bilinguals if both languages were tested.

If children can have access to many languages at home parents or carers should definitely raise them bilingual simultaneously (at the same time), preferably since birth. It is best to provide dual language exposure with as much frequency and consistency as possible. The most effective method is the one parent one language rule. This is that each parent strictly speaks in one language only while the other parent uses the other without mixing the languages.


Altarriva, J. & Heredia, R. R. (Eds.). (2008). An Introduction to bilingualism principles and processes. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis Group

Bialystok, E. (2001). Bilingualism in development: language, literacy, & cognition. United States: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.

Hamers, J. F. & Blanc, M. H. A. (Eds.). (1995). Bilinguality and bilingualism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


14 thoughts on “Children: two languages or just one?

  1. I agree that learning two languages is beneficial, especially considering the evidence you have presented. However, it displays a bias towards those parents that can converse with their children in two different languages. I have to wonder whether the reasons behind your parental focus are resultant on the lack of implementation within the education system.

    For example, my own experience was that I started learning a second language at school around age 11, then was part of the first year that had the option to drop this language in year nine (aged thirteen or fourteen) and to choose a different GCSE subject.

    If indeed early implementation is a predictor for success as you suggest, then primary education could implement the one-parent one-language rule – two teachers or teaching assistants per class to promote bilingualism. This is unlikely to happen in light of governmental education cuts. So why don’t primary schools simply encourage learning another language through instructional videos? Gavriel (1984) stated that videos are ineffective as they involve less amount of invested mental effort. However Schwan and Riempp (2004) discovered that if you give the individual control over the video (allow them to fast forward easy sections, pause and repeat hard sections), then these now-interactive videos are beneficial to learning.

    To standardise learning (so that no child is at a predetermined advantage as a result of bilingual parents), languages should be taught from an early age as part of the curriculum. As a result of government funding, the one-parent one-language application may not work. Instead children could, throughout the day, simply complete one interactive video each on a computer.

    • I did focus on parental teaching because it shocks me how many monolinguals I meet that are from bilingual families. It occurs to me, that as English is spoken world-wide and English speakers can easily go anywhere in the world without having to learn other languages, most people will only learn English without seeing the importance of learning more languages. For example, primary schools generally do not emphasise on foreign language teaching. Only in secondary education are children exposed to languages. However, since Labour made language subjects optional these have seen a rapid decline in their taking. In 2012 entries for the most popular modern languages went low: French dropped by 15 per cent, German by 13 per cent and Spanish by 2.5 per cent. This shows how interest in learning a language pupils have if not compulsory.
I do agree with you that primary schools should implement language teaching. I personally believe that it should be a priority in the very early stages of development. And using carers, teachers and assistants native speakers or proficient in the preferred language is a start. Children can be more motivated to learn if they start early in life. Maybe secondary language education is too late to begin the long process that acquiring a language can be.

  2. What if parents didn’t use the ‘one parent one language’ rule when raising a child? Which problems could arise from not using this rule? Also, what makes this the most effective way of teaching a child two languages?

    • Well, if the parents are native speakers of different languages then the one-parent-one-language (OPOL) rule is just the easiest form of teaching the child the languages as it can be provided at home with high frequency and the child can receive as much input as the parent wishes to interact with the child. It is the rule that mostly associated with the advantage of creating truly balanced-bilinguals. However, it is not the only method. The minority language at home (ML@H) applies when both parents (at home) can speak or are native speakers of a minority language that is different form that in the community. In this case the child first learns the language spoken at home and later learns the dominant language in the community by attending school, friends in the neighborhood, TV and other external contact. Sometimes, when there are more than one child in the family the siblings will speak to each other in the community (dominant) language rather than the parents’ language. Cunningham-Andersson and Andersson (1999) explain that the interaction between the siblings does not affect the method because their interaction is different and separated from the relationship with the parents. This method is also very reliable and if the parents can provide enough linguistic interaction whilst avoiding the use of the community language then children can also be raised bilingually as native of each language (Bosemark, 2006). When the parents do not speak any other language other than the one spoken in the community and cannot provide the child with a bilingual up-bringing, then sending them to bilingual schools is an effective option. Families, mainly middle and upper classes, who can afford to hire a nanny can choose one who speaks a different language, one the is preferred by the parents. This is shown to be effective and is know as artificial bilingualism. It does not necessarily have to involve a nanny, but any other person who can speak in a different language to the child, e.g. Grandparents, friends, relatives, etc. Even parents themselves that may not be proficient in any other languages but know another language sufficiently to be comfortable in using it with the child.

      There are no problems with not using the OPOL rule. It just means that if the parents do not provide enough linguistic interaction in each of their spoken languages the child will preferred only one of the languages, usually the one used the most. If the parents are not strict about only using one language without mixing (code switching) it with another, then the child will do as much mixing as the interlocutor. This is that is for instance a bilingual parent speaks in only one language when talking to the child the child will only use that language with the parent. However, if a bilingual parent mixes, for example Spanish and English in their speech towards the child, then the child will do the same amount of mixing.

      What makes the OPOL rule most effective is that children can (if both parents are consistent and provide enough linguistic interaction) be exposed to two languages from birth, thus growing-up developing linguistically and cognitively both languages at the same time making them truly native speakers of both.

  3. The ability to speak two or more languages opens up entire worlds and circles which otherwise you would not be able to move in and for that I would never think it a bad thing, I wish I had more than just a few words of French I remember from School.

    Jack of all trades master of non comes to mind when you say how bilinguals are not experts in either language or that one is inherently weaker than the other depending on usage, I think that is to be expected if we use one more than the other over time like all knowledge if not rehearsed it fades.

    I can see why bilingualism may lead to confusion in a child as they learn to be grammaticly correct but to say that it is worth waiting till you are older is probably a big mistake learning a language is certainly easier at a younger age as the mind is more adapted to it the following link mentions how we can form more than one neural pathway to have the two languages.

    • In regards to confusion, yes, there are theorist who support the claim that two languages are perceived as one and that the child cannot distinguish between the two. For example Leopold (1949) raised his daughter bilingually. She started to produce mixed language utterances and Leopold concluded that she assumed that the two languages were just part on one linguistic system – the same language. Therefore she must be confused with the two as she presumably could not tell them apart. However, linguistic behaviour in children is influenced by many factors such as the presence on speakers around them and the language used by them. A study by Nicoladis and Genese (1996) showed that bilingual children can choose their preferred language and actively use it quite early. They language preferred is the one used by the speaker. Genere, Boivin and Nicoladis (1996) exposed two-year old bilingual children to monolingual adult speakers of the child’s “weakest” language. This is the language that experimenters found to be the child’s least preferred language at home and the one that was significantly mixed the most. They found that the children were sensitive to the strangers monolingual nature and respectively adapted to this by using their language as much as they could. Children are also responsive to the parent’s acceptance of utterances produced. Lanza (1992) found, in a bilingual child, that she used significantly more language mixing with her father as he was also a bilingual and responded to her mixed speech in both languages. However, the child did not use language mixing with her mother as she was a monolingual and could only understand one of the child’s languages. This shows that the child was sensitive to the acceptance of language mixing by the father but was also aware of her mother’s lack of understanding of one of the languages. All of these pieces of research support the idea that children do not confuse languages. What people like Leopold might see as confusing might actually be an intelligent tactic used by bilingual children as they use all available linguistic resources that are an advantage to them.

  4. I am able to speak two languages (Welsh/English) and would personally agree that you cannot be an expert in both languages, due to the lack of use etc.
    However, I do think it increases opportunities and choices and it gives an advantage when applying for jobs in Wales e.g. teaching within primary schools. Due to Welsh becoming compulsory for all pupils aged up to 14 in Wales, children will mainly be taught in Welsh or learn Welsh as a second language. Therefore, children’s’ opportunities can be affected if they are mono-lingual, bilingual or multi-lingual.

  5. Learning two languages together, or learning one after another has found differences in the brain (Kim, 1997). When a second language is learned later on in life, language sensitive regions in the brain (Broca’s Area) separate the two languages, thus different areas are used for each language, and more ‘work’ to translate between the two. When two languages are learned from birth, the same area in the brain is used for both, such suggesting the elasticity of a child’s brain, and supporting evidence that we find it easier to learn language at a younger age.

  6. I really enjoyed reading your blog, as it’s something that is very close to me as I was brought up in a bilingual family (French and English).
    It is strange to me that children are not taught another language at an early age in Britain. When contrasting the French and British education, French children are taught English from the time they start school. Even living in Wales, i was not taught Welsh until i reached secondary school (things may have changed somewhat now though!).

    In cognitive complexity and control theory, Zelazo and Frye argue that preschool children lack the conscious representation and executive functioning needed to solve problems based on conflicting rules. However, Bialystok, (2003) found that bilingual children were more advanced than age matched monolingual peers in the solving of experimental problems requiring high levels of control.
    As well as this, Law argues that whichever language you speak gives you a sense of identity in more than one culture, and allows you to have two slightly different ways of looking at the world.

    On a personal note, i was taught French by my Gran, and a little Belgian by my Grandfather, i feel that it definitely tightened the bond we have. There are a lot of words that cannot be translated to mean the same thing or don’t have the same power they did before translation, in this respect i feel as though i do see the world a little differently!

  7. I would also tend to agree that bilingualism is of a benefit to our learning, and after having a quick look around I found another possible reason for the research implying it has a negative effect; Cummins specifically addresses the concern in his paper on bilingualism, and he noted that much of the research showing negative sides of bilingualism tends to focus on individuals who gradually replaced one language with another, as opposed to using both simultaneously, this then results in a lack of competency in their first language whilst a gain in the competency of their second.

    Cummins –

    • I think you are referring to bilingual preference here. I personally do not believe that a language can be “replaced” with the learning of another. To date I have not found in literature any evidence that such replacement takes place. However, I have found an explanation as to why bilingual individuals may use different languages at times thus their competency differs in both languages. Like you said being a balanced bilingual is hard and using both languages simultaneously requires double the effort in learning and double the linguistic exposure. It is two languages that are being learnt after all! What I do believe is that language proficiency depends on context. So competence is context-sensitive (Caldas & Caron-Caldas, 2000) because bilingual preference occurs due to individuals using different languages for different contexts. For example a bilingual of Spanish and English might attend a Spanish university. While the student might be more fluent in Spanish in the academic context, he or she might be better at English with friends and family if English is the language used in the social and home contexts.

  8. I love that finding, Hope!
    I thought bilinguilism would be interesting to look at in a country where many languages are spoken, and where English isn’t the natural first language of the inhabitants. A great place to look at then is India. One finding that I’ve happened across in Indian Education is that some languages don’t have a script to accompany them, so learning a second language is necessary in order to learn to write (Census India, 1991). It would be interesting to see how far the language-cognitive benefits could spread when language was only bilingual orally, and not graphically.

  9. Pingback: TEFL your ticket to the world! « elizanica

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s