Bilingualism: Facts, Myths, and Tips

SPD speech therapist Alyssa Teo dispels myths associated with bilingualism and provides tips on how parents can help their child pick up another language

Bilingualism is the ability to use two languages in everyday life. It is a common and increasing trend in many countries, with one in three people being bilingual or multilingual. SPD speech therapist Alyssa Teo dispels myths associated with bilingualism and provides tips on how parents can help their child pick up another language.

Difference between Simultaneous and Sequential Bilingualism

Simultaneous Bilingualism
(At the same time)

When a child is raised bilingually from birth, or when the second language is introduced before the age of three. Children learning two languages simultaneously go through the same developmental stages as children learning one language. While bilingual children may start talking slightly later than monolingual children, they still attain developmental milestones within the expected timeline.Bilingual children are able to differentiate between the two languages and have been shown to switch languages according to their conversation partner.
Sequential Bilingualism
(One after the other)

This occurs when a second language is introduced after the first language is well-established (generally after the age of three). Children may experience sequential acquisition if they immigrate to a country where a different language is spoken. Sequential learning may also occur if the child speaks only his native language at home until he begins school, where instructions are offered in a second language.  

Myths about Bilingualism

As our societies become increasingly globalised, many children may now learn one language at home and another in school. However, there are many misconceptions about bilingual children’s ability to learn and use language.

Myth 1 – Bilingual children develop language at a slower pace.

Bilingual children may appear to develop language at a slower pace compared to their age-matched monolingual peers as they may say their first words a little later and appear to have a smaller vocabulary in each language they speak. This is because their language development is spread across two languages. However, they will still achieve the overall developmental milestones within the age band they fall into, and the total vocabulary from both languages will be about the same as a monolingual child.

Myth 2 – Learning two languages simultaneously can cause language delay.
There is evidence that proficiency in the first and second language develop simultaneously because linguistic competence is transferred across languages. Bilingualism itself does not cause language delays although they may occur in bilingual children.

Moreover, bilingual children develop grammar skills along the same patterns and timelines as monolinguals. In fact, research shows that bilingual children match monolinguals’ conversational ability, and they typically perform within the same range across standardised tests.

Myth 3 – When children mix languages, they are confused.
Using two languages within the same sentence or conversation is known as “code mixing” or “code switching”. This is a natural part of bilingualism and is often recognised as a sign of bilingual proficiency.

Furthermore, code-mixing is sometimes used to emphasise something, express emotions, or to highlight what someone else said in the other language.

Myth 4 – Parents should adopt the “one parent-one language” approach when exposing their child to two languages.
Some parents adopt the “one parent-one language” approach where each parent speaks a different language to the child. While this is an option, there is no evidence to suggest that it is the best way to raise a bilingual child, or that it reduces code mixing. Parents should not worry if they both speak their native language to the child or if they mix languages, as bilingual children will often mix their languages regardless of the parents’ approach.

Myth 5 – If you want your child to speak the majority language, you should stop speaking your native language with your child.

There is no evidence that frequent use of the native language in the home environment impacts children’s learning of the majority language in other environments (e.g. school, community, etc). Furthermore, understanding the native language helps to foster familial bonds. In fact, research shows that children who have a strong foundation in their native language learn a second language more easily. Children are also at greater risk of losing their native language if it is not supported continually at home.

How to Support Your Bilingual Child

1) Quality and Quantity of Language Exposure

The amount of early language exposure has a profound effect on the child’s ongoing language development: Hearing more words gives children more opportunities to learn a language, which is associated with better academic outcomes.

Children learn language through listening to and interacting with different speakers. Both quality and quantity matter. High quality language exposure comes from social interactions as infants and very young children do not readily learn language from devices. In fact, low-quality television viewing in infancy has been linked to smaller vocabulary sizes in bilingual toddlers. Opportunities to interact with different speakers have been linked to improved vocabulary learning in bilingual toddlers.

2) Do What’s Comfortable

Do what feels most natural for your family. There is no need to discourage the use of your native language.

Though early exposure is beneficial, providing a perfectly balanced exposure in the early years will not necessarily ensure later bilingualism. As children become older, they become more aware of the language spoken in the community where they live and are likely to use this language in school. In Singapore, this is often English as it is the majority language. Hence, many experts recommend providing slightly more early input in a minority than in a majority language.

3) Don’t Worry!

It’s perfectly normal for a bilingual child to mix two languages. Provide your child with many opportunities to hear, speak, play and interact in your native language, especially if it is the minority language.

Benefits of Bilingualism

  • Greater cognitive flexibility: Some studies show that bilingual children are better at focusing their attention on relevant information and ignoring distractions. These children may be stronger in these skills simply because such skills are utilised more frequently as bilingual children often have to differentiate and select the appropriate language to use or process when they communicate.
  • More creative and better at planning and solving complex problems.
  • Better at social understanding as these children have to navigate communication with people who have different language skills. For example, bilingual pre-schoolers appear to have somewhat better skills than monolinguals in understanding others’ perspectives, thoughts, desires, and intentions. They also have an enhanced sensitivity to some features of communication such as tone of voice.


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