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Practical parenting: bilingual learning.

Living in Washington, a very multicultural community, I am regularly asked by parents about bilingual language development. Sometimes this is when the parents' primary language is something other than English, and sometimes it is when parents are considering bilingual school placements (including, in full disclosure, my children's own school). Frequently, families raise concerns about the impact bilingual education will have on their young child's language development, their ability to attain fluency in the English language, or to even to learn in other languages.

First, and foremost, I am able to reassure parents that the preponderance of research--an evidence base that is rapidly growing--suggests that bilingual education does not cause language delays or problems with English fluency. In fact, there is increasing evidence that bilingual education actually has linguistic and cognitive advantages for children's education and ability to learn. That said there are some unique things for parents and providers to be aware of during the period of language acquisition. One area that causes frequent confusion is that young children--younger than age 2 years--may appear to be language delayed if both languages are not assessed. For a typically developing bilingual child, some of his or her emerging words may be in one language, some may be in the other. Assessed independently, delays may appear to be present, but assessed together language development is right on track. Not uncommonly, young children "mix and match" vocabulary and grammatical syntax in both languages --again, this is a normal part of bilingual language development. As with children in monolingual environments, it is important to provide many and varied stimulating experiences--lots of talking and books no matter how many languages are spoken!

Families whose dominant home language is something other than English should feel comfortable speaking their primary language at home. Children are language sponges and will develop their English language skills normally with routine exposure outside the home and a high-quality school environment. Additionally, there is evidence that English-language learners learn English better and more fluently in a bilingual environment. All of that said, for children whose speech development does not seem to be typical, every effort should be made to have a speech and language evaluation (and therapy if needed) done in the child's primary language. This can be a challenge in any community, and often requires advocacy and persistence on the part of the pediatrician to identify possible options.

Lastly, bilingual education takes time. The research shows--and my experience as the parent of one bilingual and one emerging bilingual child supports this--that proficiency can take several years and perhaps longer, depending on the richness and intensity of exposures. Parents should be encouraged to ask questions and work closely with their children's doctors and teachers if there are any questions. Every child is different, and different children may require different supports or approaches.

Finally, my personal observation has convinced me that there are intangible benefits of bilingualism in children. The richness of experience and pride in the accomplishment of learning another language, and the greater understanding my children and their peers have of other cultures and the global community is remarkable. I see them apply these lessons in other and unexpected places (and sometimes dubious ones ... such as when my son's elementary school soccer team decided to call plays to each other in Spanish in order to outsmart the other team). Both the research and my own personal experience make me very comfortable in reassuring and supporting parents who are hoping to promote bilingual language acquisition in their children.


Dr. Beers is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Children's National Medical Center and the George Washington University Medical Center, Washington. She is chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Residency Scholarships and president of the District of Columbia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. E-mail Dr. Beers at Scan this QR code to read similar columns or go to
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Title Annotation:OPINION
Author:Beers, Lee Savio
Publication:Pediatric News
Date:Jun 1, 2014
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