By: Diana Bello Aristizábal
October is Celebrating the Bilingual Child Month in the United States, where despite the fact that English is the predominant language, a large number of residents speak at least a second one. For this reason, this month is a good opportunity to highlight the advantages of bilingualism, provide guidelines for bilingual families and debunk some of the myths surrounding the subject.
According to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, being bilingual means understanding, expressing, and conveying thoughts clearly in two languages, while being multilingual means cultivating these skills in more than two languages.
This process translates into moving between two worlds because each language comes with great cultural richness, not to mention that several functions are activated in the brain when an individual uses two or more languages frequently.
According to Dr. Melissa Baralt, an applied psycholinguist and associate professor in the Department of Modern Languages at FIU, the impact of bilingualism is such that it can give children an advantage in executive function when they are born prematurely, according to research from the university.
“Almost all the research available is on full-term infants. However, bilingualism is thought to improve executive functioning, which is the brain’s CEO, regulating attention, planning, and task completion in preterm infants.”
Another benefit linked to cognition is that it lengthens life expectancy in people who are genetically inclined to suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s. “If you’re sensitive to these illnesses and use two languages every day, this gives you an additional five years before those mental deficiencies set in,” explains Dr. Baralt.
Also, children who learn a second or third language have a better social and emotional development because they are much more connected with their families and heritage and will have democratic inclinations, which has nothing to do with politics but with the ability to accept diversity, meaning there are different ways of thinking and lifestyles.
Likewise, being bilingual improves job prospects and creates higher income. For example, in the Miami area, a large majority of jobs require the use of Spanish and English.
“Teaching a child two languages is like giving him two university degrees because when he grows up, goes to college, and then applies for a job, he will have a competitive advantage over a monolingual candidate who has the same qualifications,” says Anita Arguello, ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) teacher at a K-6 elementary school.
How to promote bilingualism at home?
Although handling two languages opens up a world of possibilities, there are many myths around the subject that sometimes make this process difficult. One of them is that bilingualism cannot be promoted in a family where both parents are monolingual, which is false. In fact, this can become an opportunity for everyone at home to learn together.
In this case, it is likely that children will need to learn more of their parents’ language, as they are usually more immersed in English due to the number of hours they spend at school, while adults will need to make an effort to learn English.
“The important thing is to show minors that they are proud to have a bilingual identity as a family. I recommend them to model an interest and motivation towards learning English without having to reach a high level, 50 words is better than nothing,” says Dr. Baralt.
However, in Hispanic families, for example, it is best trying to preserve the original language at home, especially when there are preschool children, since it has been proved they can learn English better if they first develop strong skills in Spanish.
And, is it valid to speak Spanish and English at the same time at home? According to Dr. Baralt, they cannot be forced to speak only Spanish when they will naturally be inclined to use the other language. However, if they respond in English, they should be warmly invited to say the same thing in Spanish.
“For a child to learn Spanish, they must have enough opportunities for input and for output during the day, otherwise they won’t be able to. This can be achieved by encouraging frequent social and creative language back-and-forth interactions such as watching a TV show but also having conversations with them in a safe and welcoming environment.”
But be careful with the use of Spanglish because this is confusing for children and prevents them from reaching a high level in Spanish. “It is valid sometimes to speak in English and sometimes in Spanish but not to combine them in the same sentence and at the same time. If they respond in Spanglish, ask them without correcting them to choose a language to communicate but be consistent,” advises Anita Arguello.
Finally, in order for them to have a high level of proficiency in their family’s language, be it Spanish or any other, it is recommended to promote the study of the language through formal classes and reading books so that they can not only communicate verbally but also learn to write properly.