Should My Child Learn Multiple Languages?


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Should we or should we not teach our children multiple languages at a very young age? Will my child be a jack of all trades but master of none? As parents, should we focus more on Bahasa Malaysia, English, Tamil or Mandarin? After all, these are the languages of instruction in schools. Are dialects still of much use in this increasingly globalised world? These are among some of the questions parents ask when deciding what language/s they should use with their children. Therefore, I have compiled some interesting facts and researches from to address these questions.
Let’s first look at how a child acquires bilingualism. Dual language acquisition can occur in two ways:

1. Simultaneous acquisition of two languages

This occurs when a child is raised bilingually from birth or learns a second language before age three (Paradis, Genesee, Crago, 2011). While statistically, bilinguals may start talking slightly later than their monolingual counterparts, the emergence of language skills in bilinguals is still well within the normal range (Meisel, 2004).

2. Sequential acquisition of two languages

This occurs when a second language is introduced after the first language is well-established. In Malaysia, this commonly occurs when a child speaks his heritage language at home until he goes to a school setting where the teaching instruction is in a different language.


Myths about bilingualism

1. Bilingualism causes language delay – FALSE

A bilingual child may have smaller vocabulary in each individual language but his total vocabulary from two languages will be at least the same size as a monolingual child. Bilingualism itself does not cause language delay. A bilingual child who is demonstrating significant delays in language development could have a language disorder and should be seen by a speech therapist.

2. When children mix their languages it means that they are confused and having trouble becoming bilingual – FALSE

When children use both languages within the same sentence or conversation, it is known as “code mixing” or “code switching”.

Examples of code mixing: I haven’t makan yet.
Examples of code switching: Teacher I want to complain. Amir ambil pensil saya.
Parents sometimes worry that this mixing is a sign of language delay or confusion. However, code mixing is a natural part of bilingualism. Adults do it all the times, so it should be expected that children would also do the same.

3. A person is not truly bilingual unless he is equally proficient in both languages – FALSE

It is rare to find an individual who is equally proficient in both languages. Most bilinguals have a “dominant language” (language of greater proficiency). The dominant language is often influenced by the majority language of the society in which the individual lives. An individual’s dominant language can change with age, circumstance, education, social network, employment, and many other factors.

4. If you want your child to speak the majority language, you should stop speaking your home language with your child – FALSE

Some parents attempt to speak the majority language to their child because they want their child to learn that language, even if they themselves are not fluent in that majority language. This can mean that conversations and interactions do not feel natural or comfortable between parent and child. There is no evidence that frequent use of second language in the home is essential for a child to learn a second language. Furthermore, without knowledge of a family’s home language, a child can become isolated from family members who only speak the home language. For example, if the child is only taught to speak English, he will not be able to converse with grandparents and relatives who can only speak Hokkien. Research shows that children who have a strong foundation in their home language more easily learn a second language.

What about children with language impairments? Can they learn more than one language?

The belief that bilingualism is disadvantageous to children with language impairment is false (Kohnert, Yim, Nett, Kan& Duran, 2005). Studies have compared the development of both simultaneous and sequential bilingual children who have language impairments with the development of monolingual children with language impairments to determine if there are differences between these two groups:

Simultaneous Bilingual Children with Language Delays

1. Similarities between monolingual and bilingual children with Down Syndrome

A study comparing children with Down syndrome being raised in bilingual homes with monolingual children with Down syndrome showed that bilingual children achieved proficiency in their two languages as would be expected according to their cognitive level (Kay-Raining Bird, Cleave, Trudeau, Thordardottir, Sutton & Thorpe, 2005). The authors concluded that bilingual children with Down syndrome perform at least as well as monolingual children with Down syndrome (in their dominant language).

2. Bilingual children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

A study that compared English-Chinese bilingual children who have ASD with monolingual children who have ASD found that both groups had equivalent scores in English productive vocabulary, conceptual production vocabulary, and vocabulary comprehension. The authors concluded that bilingualism did not have negative effects on the children’s language development (Petersen, Marinova-Todd &Mirenda, 2011).

Sequential Bilingual Children with Language Delays

1. Children with ASD

Hambly and Fombonne (2011) compared the language skills of sequential, simultaneous and monolingual children with ASD. Their study included nonverbal and verbal children. They found no significant differences in language level between the three groups.

2. Similar language levels of proficiency to monolingual peers

Studies of children with language delay who learn a second language show that these children display similar developmental profiles and similar levels of proficiency to their monolingual peers with specific language impairment (after sufficient second language exposure) (Paradis et al., 2011)

Why promote dual language learning in children with language impairment?

1. Monolingualism is not always an option

For many children, bilingualism is a necessity, not a choice. If the child’s parents do not speak the majority language, they have no choice but to speak their home language with their child. On the other hand, eliminating second language is not feasible either. This can result in poor communication in a number of settings, such as school, peer interaction and other social settings (Thordardottir, Weismer, & Smith, 1997; Thordardottir, 2006). Monolingualism is, therefore not an option for many children living in bilingual or multilingual environments like Malaysia.

2. Family communication and interaction

Eliminating a child’s home language that is used with his family is likely to result in diminished communication within the family, and negative emotional consequences (Thordardottir, Weismer, & Smith, 1997; Thordardottir, 2006).

3. Cultural connection

Lack of support for dual language learning can jeorpadize a child’s connection with his home culture. Kremer-Sadlik (2005) reported that a consequence experienced by some of the children in her study was that they no longer identified with their minority culture or community. Some families engaged in fewer cultural activities due to their child’s lack of abilities in the home language.

4. Developmental Consequences

Paradis et al. (2011), suggest that, just as with typically developing bilingual children, supporting both languages in children with language impairment can benefit both languages academically as well as benefitting the child’s cognitive development generally. They also explain that supporting the first language early on can have long-term benefits for second language development and academic success in the second language, just as it does for typically-developing children.

What language/s should parents choose for their child? Whether your child’s language developes typically or is delayed/impaired, research has shown that it is good to support your child with your home language (be it Bahasa Malaysia, English, Tamil, Telegu, Cantonese, Hokkien, Mandarin, etc). Your child will be able participate in the interaction with his immediate community, which is important for his social development. Giving your child a strong foundation in the home language will certainly help him to learn a second or third language.



(written by Ms. Yong Ennie)