Bilingualism

It’s my first post and I’ve chosen a very big and complicated topic… but it’s a topic that I find both very interesting and personally very relevant right now (and it seems that other people find it interesting too). You see, I’m a bilingual – I can speak, read, and write in two languages (Hebrew and English). But what makes my interest more pressing is that my kids are (or will be, in the case of the 9 months old) bilingual. We speak Hebrew at home, but their environment, including daycare, neighbors, and play groups are all English- and sometimes French-speaking. You can see how I’m naturally attracted to this topic. So bear with me, I’m going to give a little review of what research is talking about right now, and then talk about some big questions that arise from what we know about bilingualism.

Generally speaking, there are both advantages and disadvantages to being bilingual. From a language perspective, bilinguals have a smaller vocabulary in each of the language than monolingual. A very cool finding is that monolinguals and bilinguals tend to have the same vocabulary for settings in which both are experiencing the same language. Bilingual children score lower in vocabulary that is associated with their non-tested language. So, for instance, a child who speaks Spanish at home but goes to an English-speaking school would have lower scores than a monolingual child (English speaking, in this case) in words that are associated with home settings (such as squash or pitcher), but would have a comparable score in school-related words (such as writing or rectangle). Makes sense, doesn’t it? The kid is speaking Spanish at home, so there’s really no reason for her to know the English word for camcorder. These findings come from the awesome research done by Dr. Ellen Bialystok and her colleagues at York University – Dr. Bialystok has been researching bilingualism for years, and coming up with very interesting findings.

A clear advantage that bilinguals have is in terms of their cognitive control skills. It seems that because they constantly have to shift between languages and inputs, bilingual children become really good at shifting. Shifting is a term used by researchers to refer to the ability to control your attention and your response to whatever it is that you are paying attention to. Researchers have found, for instance, that 7 months old babies (babies!!) who are “crib bilinguals” (that is, they have one caregiver that speaks one language and another who speaks a different language) are better at un-learning something that is no longer true and re-learning a new association. The bilingual babies have better cognitive control skills than the monolingual babies, presumably because they have more practice at switching between languages. In addition, it seems that dementia in old age is delayed for bilinguals when compared to monolinguals, but by the time people are in their 70s, it’s really hard to know what is causing this difference.

OK, so there are mostly advantages from a cognitive perspective. What about social aspects? Dr. Wen-Jui of Columbia University looked into that, and she found that bilingual children are doing better than their monolingual peers in terms of their interpersonal skills. What I found interesting is that she didn’t look for popularity or actual skills (these were teacher reports). When I grew up, if your parents talked to you in a different language you were an outsider, an easy target for picking on. So I would be concerned about the child’s fitting in socially – and I could not find any research that looked into that. But I don’t get the sense here with my kids that they are outsiders because they can speak another language. Maybe it’s because in the daycare my son attends more than half the kids in his group speak another language at home, whether it’s Arabic, Chinese, French, or Hebrew.

Does that mean you should start speaking a foreign language with your child? Enroll your preschooler to a Mandarin course? Not really. The child has to be a true bilingual for the benefits to kick in – you can’t fake it. What about immersion programs, then? Well, they have pros and cons as well. We talked about the French immersion program here in Canada in my lab, and some people said, for instance, that they felt the teachers were not as good as the teachers in the English-only programs. That is to say, in Ontario at least, there aren’t enough math teachers who are fluent in French to raise the bar. For me as a parent, there’s a big decision that I’ll have to face in a couple of years: should we enroll our kids in a French immersion program to give them fluency in a third language – a language that would help them later in life should we and they choose to stay here in Canada? Or are three languages too much?

So what I’d really like is to hear more opinions. Did you attend an immersion program? Are you a bilingual? Are your kids? Are you a teacher? I would love to hear opinions! If you don’t feel comfortable leaving a public comment, feel free to email me and I’ll make sure your voice is heard.

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7 thoughts on “Bilingualism

  1. I took Fr Immersion in Ottawa from Gr 6+. In high school when English classes were shared with immersion and core eng students, the immersion students seemed to perform better. I think my teachers were great, but I wasn’t comparing. My theory is that the families who enroll kids in immersion generally invest more time in education. So you get better students, better classes. With immersion so widespread now, I’m not sure if it’s as noticeable.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Liz 🙂

    The immersion program is being criticized as “elitist”, and I know that teachers would encourage better performing students to join. That said, family involvement is a big factor in students success, so it’s really hard to separate these things. If researchers were not bound by ethics, we could have taken comparable pairs of kids (kids whose parents have the same willingness for involvement, whose parents have the same education, same socioeconomic status, same IQ, etc.), and put one in French immersion and one in regular English school, and then follow up after a few years. But I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon 🙂

  3. I can see how it can be viewed that way, but it is offered all over the city to schools with students of varying backgrounds. You can enroll at JK (though they start French in SK).

    I would think that in today’s globally connected world, being Multi-lingual is almost a necessity. However you get that way.

  4. I observed many bi-lingual kids and only thing I want to add is that you need to apply efforts to maintain and develop your home language. Even if parents use native language home, many kids stop using it in their teens (not to mention reading and writing) if not enforced. And if parents switch to English to help their kid to adopt to school, for example – you may forget about native language. So the point is that kids forget languages as quick as they learn them – so I suspect that it makes sense to teach kids another language only if there is clear way to use/maintain it up to their adult years.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I’m so excited that people are actually reading this… 🙂
      I see what you mean about not using the native language, and the rule of “use it or lose it” does apply to languages. However, I’m not sure that applies for your native language – I would think that a language you use when you are a child is never lost. I think (and I don’t have data to back this up, so this is really just speculations) that learning to read/write in your native language has a big effect on the level of command you have over that language as an adult. That is, children who learn to read/write in their native language will have a higher level of control over that language than children who do not learn to read/write. Is that what you observed?
      Another point is, I believe that the general cognitive advantages you get as a bilingual child do not disappear if you only use one language as an adult. So, for instance, if you have executive functions advantages from being a bilingual, you have that advantage as an adult even if you no longer use your native language (or your second language, for that matter). Again, I couldn’t find any research to back this up, but I couldn’t find anything relating to adult language use of childhood bilinguals, so I guess this is an open research question 🙂

      1. Unfortunatley my (although completely non-scientific) observations (among our russian-speaking friends in the US) show that kids are losing their native language even when parents are speaking native language at home (except, maybe, ethnic ghettos). Even if they know how to write and read. Not completely, of course, but up to point when they just ashamed to talk. You need to somewhat enforce it to keep even native language (classes, reading, talking, etc).

  5. Dr. Michael Wohl (http://http-server.carleton.ca/~mwohl/Dr_Michael_Wohl/Home.html) raised an interesting point about the social integration of immigrants in a talk I heard him give. He said that a culture of a “melting pot” – that is, a culture in which immigrants are expected to conform to the dominant values and culture – is less conducive to social integration than a culture of diversification (such as can be seen in Canada, for instance). From my experience in both types of cultures, I have to agree with him. I think this is the difference I feel between how my peers reacted to bilingual children when I was in school and how my kids are accepted as bilinguals here. But I would really like to see a research looking into childhood bilinguals’ adult use of language!

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