Raising Bilingual Children has its Benefits and Doubters
(CNN)In a playground in Paris, 3-year-old Raphael Jegouzo excitedly tells a little girl, “Me too, I speak French!” Like many other children his age, he learned to speak French at home — except his home is Brooklyn, New York.
“My husband’s family couldn’t believe he spoke French as if he were living in France,” Raphael’s mother, Raquel Jegouzo, said. At home, Raquel speaks to Raphael in English and French. His father, Erwan Jegouzo, a native French speaker, speaks to Raphael exclusively in French.
The Jegouzos might be doing something right. According to Emory University psychology professor Laura L. Namy, the best approach to raising bilingual children is to start early. “The child should hear as much of both languages as possible from birth, ideally from two different speakers who consistently speak one of the languages to them,” Namy said.
Pediatrician Dr. Gwendolyn Delaney agrees. “The earlier the better. Studies have shown that children exposed to more than one language have greater tissue density in the areas of the brain related to language, memory and attention. The effect is particularly strong when the additional language is introduced before age 5.”
Are there downsides of bilingualism for kids?
Delaney and Namy said the most common worry they see in parents who want to raise bilingual children is that exposing children to multiple languages early on might confuse the child. They both said this should not be a concern. According to Namy, children begin to learn the sounds of their mothers’ native languages while they are in the womb, and they can tell the difference between that language and other languages from birth.
“As long as children hear two distinct languages being spoken at different times, they would not get the languages confused,” Namy said. “They may occasionally substitute a word from one language into a sentence in the other language simply because they haven’t acquired the full vocabulary in both languages yet, but this doesn’t imply that they don’t understand which words belong in which languages.”
The notion that their child could lag behind in speech might stem from parents comparing the speed at which their child is reaching language milestones — which has nothing to do with how many languages they are learning. “Language acquisition isn’t a race. All typically developing kids get there in the end, and there’s a lot of normal variability,” Namy said.
Children are more versatile than parents might think.
The Ramos family lives in West Palm Beach, Florida, and the parents speak to their children in Spanish at home. They are surrounded by friends who speak English, Spanish or both. Jismarie Ramos said her son, who just turned 4, learned by himself to identify people who speak a specific language and engage in a conversation in that language. “If you talk to him in Spanish, he will reply in Spanish without me telling him to. If you say ‘hello’ instead of ‘hola,’ he knows right away to engage in a conversation in English,” Ramos said.