Children Bilingual Books

Researchers today find that bilingualism significantly impacts brain functionality. Dr. Maria Arredondo, a developmental psychologist from the University of Texas at Austin, studies these impacts on young children. She found that language acquisition becomes more difficult as we age out of early childhood. High school students sitting in a Spanish class are known as sequential language learners, meaning they acquire an additional language after mastering their primary language. However, newly born children with influences from two languages are called simultaneous language learners. In other words, they learn two or more languages as they develop their initial ability to communicate.

Phonetics is the primary driver that children use to develop speech. At birth, we can hear about 800 phonemes, or sounds. However, over time these are narrowed down to about two dozen phonemes that we use regularly. Children that learn multiple languages simultaneously can retain the sounds that apply to both languages. They also learn syntax and patterns of each language and thus are able to switch effort back and forth between languages as they work to accommodate the listener.

Most bilingual children consciencely understand the differences and can make this toggle in mid-sentence. The ability to switch back and forth is not only handy in language, but also conditions the brain to move quickly when distinguishing between other observations. A bilingual child not only becomes more efficient in reading and writing, but also gains efficiency in other fields such as math. In addition, bilingual children that develop two languages in the early stages of life retain the phonemes of both languages and thus avoid any accent when speaking either language.

Because bilinguals carry heavier loads during initial stages of development, they tend to be a bit behind monolinguals in the first few years of school. However, like exercising any muscle, over time this extra strength begins to manifest itself in the classroom, thus overcoming monolinguals in many areas of education.
Consider the following scenarios of language learners:

  • Juan was born into a bilingual home in the U.S. where his parents spoke Spanish and some English.
  • Mia was 4 years old when her parents moved from China to the U.S. Her parents spoke Chinese at home and at preschool Sophia heard only English.
  • Sophia was born to two English-speaking parents. She was placed in a Spanish early immersion program at school when she was six.
  • Alex moved to the U.S. from Russia when he was 12 years-old not knowing a word of English. His parents spoke Russian and some broken English at home, and Alex learned English at school.
  • Todd was born in the U.S. to two monolingual parents. Todd remains monolingual.
  • Kelly is 36 years-old in the U.S. and has been learning German in anticipation of moving to Germany. 

Apart from rare cases, we all learn basic language in the first few years of our life. Some learn Chinese, some Spanish, some English, and others learn one of the other hundreds of languages spoken in the world today. Depending on circumstances, many remain monolingual throughout their lives. However, more than half the world’s population today are bilingual or even multilingual. Unlike other nations of the world that stress second-language learning in school, most bilinguals in the United States are first- or second-generation immigrants. Our county’s lack of second-language emphasis in school is undoubtedly a factor behind our poor ranking in education. However, that trend can change.

Each of the before mentioned scenarios has a unique set of outcomes in later years:

  • Juan had a huge advantage in his early years. Having bilingual parents has enabled Juan to plug into an expanded set of phonemes that allow him to detect and repeat the sounds of each language. Moreover, he does it with ease. By the end of his first or second year of life, he should be able to speak in either Spanish or English. Neuroscientists know that simultaneous bilingualism impacts brain function and gives us added abilities on how we perceive the world around us.
  • Mia is still young enough at 4-years-old to feel the benefits of early bilingualism. Since she is still in the mode of learning language at that age, and the same principles apply to her as with Juan. Without formal training, she can pick up English with little effort. Although, she will struggle for a period as she learns English, overtime she will surpass her monolingual peers in reading and writing.
  • If Sophia is placed in early immersion classes at 6 years-old, she will learn Spanish at a slower rate than Juan unless her parents are re-enforcing the language at home. However, over time, she will grasp the new language and have a fuller understanding of grammar and pronunciation in both languages.
  • Sequential language learning is when a second language is introduced after one has mastered the first. With effort and study, Alex will learn English over a couple of years. In subsequent schoolyears, his reading and writing ability are likelier to be more advanced than his English-speaking peers. When a second language is learned, our understanding of our native language begins to make more sense. Our native language’s grammar, spelling, and punctuation improve as we learn aspects of both languages.
  • Like many children in the U.S., Todd will remain monolingual his entire life unless at some point he engages in language study. Unlike, every other country in the world, Todd will be able to function in the world from the simple fact that English is the default language of the planet. However, he will miss the benefits associated with language learning.
  • Kelly struggles a bit learning German at the age of thirty-six. As we get older, speaking and writing another language is a challenge. The 800 phonemes she knew at birth are now indistinguishable, apart from the couple dozen we retained from our primary language. Through effort and practice, she will learn the second language, but likely with a distinguishing accent.

Language impacts our lives more than any other aspect. It defines culture, perception, and our placement in society. The social and cultural benefits are immeasurable. The more people we can communicate with, the more opportunities available in life. This applies to both simultaneous and sequential learners. With that said, it is never too late to learn a second language.
For more information on how the brain functions for bilinguals watch

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