Bilingual children

“Vorrei alcuni gelati!”

“You want some ice-cream, do you?”

?Yes please! Si`?

Bilingualism is the ability to speak two languages. Over 200 languages are spoken in Australia and the most recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2001) indicates that more than 2.8 million people speak a language other than English at home. Although no clear data is available about the number of bilinguals in Australia, anecdotal evidence suggests that bilingualism is becoming more prominent, as it becomes more valued in our society.

Benefits of learning a second language

The benefits of learning two languages as a child are widely reported. As a young child, the brain is constantly making new connections, making the acquisition of language much easier than it is for older children and adults. As with the development of the ‘mother tongue’ or first language, for young children learning a second language is simply about being immersed in it. “It doesn’t take more energy or brain space,” explains Anneliese Hastings, a Speech Pathologist with over 20 years’ experience working with children in mainstream schools and special education settings.

Ms Hastings has spent the last 30 years trying to learn her father’s language (German). “[Bilingualism] was not something promoted when I was a child.” With a passion for working with children from multicultural backgrounds, she recognises the importance of bilingualism beyond speech and language development. “Some research still tends to be a little negative regarding the slowing down some of milestones. I believe very, very strongly that this is of little significance compared to the social value and the benefits of bilingualism.”

Bilingualism has been reported to benefit children in many ways, none less than helping the development of their first language. An increased ability to ‘multi-task’ (do more than one thing at a time), focus concentration, think analytically and solve problems has also been reported. Just as importantly, learning two languages fosters greater awareness of and respect for other cultures.

Research conducted in 2004 by York University, Canada, found that people who spoke more than one language were mentally ‘sharper’ and suggested that bilingualism may help to protect against mental decline in older age. In 2007 research conducted in Toronto went even further, suggesting that bilingualism may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s by four years.


Whilst there is widespread belief that children who learn two languages are at risk of slower language development, there is no evidence to support these claims. Some children, whether they learn one or two languages, learn to speak later than others.

‘Mixing’ languages is commonly reported, but is not a sign of language problems or confusion. Whilst your child may not initially realise that there are words that only occur in one language, and may demonstrate this by using a mix of languages, she/he will come to understand that there are two different languages. Children tend to use the language that they have available to them at the time. If your child doesn’t know the word for ‘toilet’ in English, but does know the word in Cantonese, then this is the language he/she will use.

A British study published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood in 2008, suggests that speaking two languages in the preschool years increases a childs’ risk of stuttering. Whilst this may sound alarming, and has caused considerable concern among parents of bilingual children, the conclusions drawn from this research have no support from a number of experts in Australia, Canada and America. Speech Pathologists have questioned the validity of the findings, citing that the children included were recruited from only a few clinics and were not ‘typical’ stutterers. Associate Professor Ann Packman, Speech Pathologist in the Australian Stuttering Research Centre at The University of Sydney, urges parents not to discourage preschool children from learning more than one language, but does advise parents who are concerned that their child may be stuttering, to contact a Speech Pathologist.

In schools

The Australian Government recognises the benefits of learning two languages. In 2003 a review of languages education in Australian schools was conducted. It found that 146 languages were being taught in schools, with fifty percent of students learning a language. This review prompted the development of a four year plan to further develop the teaching of languages in schools. In Victoria, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development recommended a minimum of 150 minutes of language education across the week, and set requirements for the reporting of language outcomes at particular levels. It’s a start, but Ms Hastings believes that language education is still undervalued, and feels that this is reflected in the insufficient time dedicated to languages within government primary schools.

Advice for Parents

  • Make sure that your child knows the names of the different languages he/she speaks.
  • Play games and read books in both languages.
  • Teach your child nursery rhymes and songs in both languages.
  • Tell your child stories in your language. Encourage your child to join in with the story telling.
  • Take your child to concerts, plays and films where they will hear people using your language.
  • Try to find other children/families who speak the same language.
  • Don’t just focus on the language – encourage the cultural aspects as well.
  • Don’t give up if your child does not seem to want to speak in the other language – the benefits are still there

Melissa and her husband Zsombor knew that they wanted to raise their children to be bilingual from the moment that they were pregnant – Zsomber would speak only Hungarian with his daughter, and Melissa would speak English (though this was her opportunity to learn some Hungarian as well!). It was important to them for the Hungarian language to be carried on in the family, and means that Natalia can ‘talk’ to her grandparents on the phone.

Natalia, who is now 26 months old, understands both English and Hungarian. “She speaks both however tends to favour English as she is home with me during the day,” – explains Melissa. “For certain words she favours a particular language and for some she alternates between both.” But this has not affected her language development. “She is a real chatterbox and has had many comments from other parents about how well she speaks. Our day carers have actually commented that her English speech is quite advanced.” And Melissa’s advice to other parents who may be considering raising their children with two languages? “Start early and make it a habit! It is well worth the effort!”

Useful resources

__This article has been provided by Penni Drysdale, a freelance writer and mother of two boys._

For more information see Parenting advice or Parenting .

15/09/21 - min Read

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