Bilingualism and Language Development

There is very little doubt that learning more than one language can be advantageous. In bilingual families teaching babies both parents’ languages is more of a natural process than a planned language development process. However, there are different ways of bringing up babies with multiple languages. The two most common ways are each parent speaking a different language, or both parents speaking one language at home, and the second language outside the home. There are no significant differences between the two methods, and in most cases this decision comes down to whether both parents speak the same language or each parent speaks their native language, with one being the current location’s common language.

There have been many discussions and recently more studies on the effects of bilingualism on language development in early childhood. Studies by language development specialists and linguists primarily cover the effect of bilingualism in speech development milestones. Learning two languages requires more cognitive effort than learning one language. Does this extra work impact how much time each language learning stage takes to complete?  One research study at   University of British Columbia and Ottawa showed that bilingual children might learn new words in different ways than monolingual children do.

Experiments description:

Experiment 1 included a heterogeneous sample of bilingual babies (i.e., those exposed to English and another language).

Experiment 2 tested two homogeneous groups of bilingual infants (English-French and English-Chinese). In both experiments, infants were repeatedly presented with a crown-shaped object that was called “bih” and a molecule-shaped object called “dih.” They were then tested on their ability to notice a switch in an object’s name (for example, the molecule-shaped object being called “bih” instead of “dih”). In all of the groups, the bilingual infants failed to notice the minimal change in the object’s name until 20 months of age, whereas monolingual infants noticed the change at 17 months.


Detecting differences in similar sounding words is not a significant issue in the context of baby language. According to the researchers in Ottawa bilingual and monolingual children have the same vocabulary milestone when words from both languages are taken into account.

In bilingual homes when each parent speaks a different language it might take more planning and effort to raise a bilingual child, than in homes where both parents speak the same language. Consistency is very important when each parent speaks to their child in their native language, at least for the first three years. The older the child gets, the more natural it is for him or her to seamlessly switch between languages.

Behzad Moaddeli


~ by Behzad on September 20, 2009.

One Response to “Bilingualism and Language Development”

  1. Good research, very interesting. I know someone who speaks English at school and Mandarin Chinese at home, and I think his English skills are fine, so I think it is very advantageous to learn another language. Also, I have heard bilingual children also have dreams in both languages. I wonder how long you have to fluently speak a language to dream in it? Thanks for the info.

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