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Bilingualism 101: Bilingualism in Early Childhood


Child bilingualism constitutes a significant global phenomenon which implies many societies worldwide to be multilingual. Thus, children encounter many languages which in turn play a crucial role into shaping their thought and mind. If on one hand children may hear two (or more) languages from birth, on the other they could also be reared bilingually despite not living in a bilingual family. This series of articles is therefore focused on bilinguals’ development and the mechanisms involved in the mastery of a plurality of linguistic codes.

The Bilingualism 101 series will be divided into the following chapters of content:

  1. Bilingualism 101: Bilingualism in Early Childhood

  2. Bilingualism 101: Biological Basis of Bilingualism

  3. Bilingualism 101: The Bilingual Brain

  4. Bilingualism 101: Bilingualism and Society

  5. Bilingualism 101: Bilingualism in Immigrants

  6. Bilingualism 101: Language Delay in Bilingualism

Bilingualism in Early Childhood

Nowadays, there is plenty of literature explaining language learning mechanisms in childhood. Moreover, having multilingual competence is considered a pivotal skill for children’s future success. Thus, we can consider early childhood bilingualism as a reality for a growing number of children around the world. That is why there is a crucial need to reach a better understanding of this phenomenon. Children who are exposed to more than one language since birth have the remarkable opportunity from a personal, social, and economic point of view. According to Steinberg and coll. (2010), life stages are divided in infancy (until about age 2), early childhood (until about age 6) and middle childhood (until about age 11).

The transition between each phase always corresponds to a decisive moment in a child’s language development process.

Communication is the main motivation for learning languages.

Children have proven through the years to be incredibly fast language learners. There is an entire body of research according to which the earliest years in the life of a child are the most favourable ones in the language-learning process. This holds true despite hearing from people about the alleged difficulty of children in coping with more than one language code. As studies have shown, though, children who learn two languages simultaneously (who are referred to as “simultaneous bilinguals”, as we will see below) sometimes have minor early language delays. Nonetheless, no data in literature proves this delay to be dangerous for language development. Researchers have examined bilinguals with various language combinations in their language acquisition path (with respect to phonology, vocabulary, and grammar) concluding they acquire language-specific properties at the same pace as their monolingual counterparts. Grosjean and LI (2013) sustain that the general pattern of language development is similar in bilingual and monolingual children (babbling, one-word, and two-words stages).

Bilinguals can be exposed to two or more languages since birth or later in life. The range of circumstances under which a child becomes bilingual is in fact quite wide. The acquisition process can be simultaneous or sequential, thus defining categories bilinguals fall into. According to Levorato and Marini (2019), these categories are established with respect to the criteria they consider. As far as the temporal coordinate is concerned, it is possible to define simultaneous bilinguals, i.e. bilinguals who have been adequately exposed to two or more languages since birth, and sequential bilinguals, i.e. either early or late bilinguals (ages 2-9 and after 10, respectively), depending on how long they have been exposed to the second language.

As for the definition of “adequate exposure”, first we need to remark that exposure is considered adequate for simultaneous bilinguals when parents use the target languages continuously and follow the principle “one parent-one language” (i.e. one language per parent). Secondly, exposure is considered adequate for sequential bilinguals when children are exposed to the second language for enough time (e.g., daily, for children to whom the enrolment in early childhood education and care constitutes their first encounter with L2).

Bilingual children recognize the right language for each context from early childhood.

According to Genesee (2009), simultaneous bilinguals go through an initial stage in which all the languages they are exposed to are represented as a single linguistic code. Nonetheless, young bilinguals prove to have a strong communicative competence when tested for appropriate language use (i.e., their capacity of selecting the right language with respect to the interlocutor).

Infants grow into toddlers and pre-schoolers and as the process unfolds, the acquisition process becomes more active. Studies by Genesee (2008), Yoshida (2008), or Poulin-Dubois, Blaye, Coutya & Bialystok (2011) show the advantages of being bilingual in terms of cognitive flexibility, metalinguistic awareness, and executive functions skills.

The value of learning more than one language during childhood has shown to be advantageous during the past 20 years. The growing importance of learning several languages has mainly been brought to light by anthropologic phenomena such as globalisation or immigration. Many people use in fact more than one language in their daily lives, thus affirming the crucial value of interconnectedness and interdependencies among the world’s nations. As for early childhood, this has led to the enhancement in the education system of many countries around the world (e.g., the responsible and responsive education in Canada and other English-speaking countries).

Bilingualism is a key skill that can predict success in academic life.

Speaking of bilinguals’ advantages, Bialystok and Martin (2004) confirmed what had already been stated in previous literature: bilinguals show a better inhibition ability, when it comes to ignoring and/or selecting perceptual information. This control of attention skill in bilinguals allows them to have a better focus on specific aspects of a mental representation, thus outperforming monolinguals in problem-solving tasks.

Studying bilinguals provides, from a theoretical point of view, the possibility to gain fresh insights in the general theory of language acquisition. Nonetheless, the study of how children learn two (or more) languages has practical significance as well. How come that the same language learning skill enables humans to learn one language or more than one? It could be argued, as in Grosjean and Li (2013), that in monolingual contexts this same capacity that underlies the language learning acquisition process “is not yet put to full use”.

Bibliographical references

Bialystok, E., Majumder, S., & Martin, M. M. (2003). Developing phonological awareness: Is there a bilingual advantage? Applied Psycholinguistics, 24(1), 27–44. Bialystok, E., & Martin, M. M. (2004). Attention and inhibition in bilingual children: evidence from the dimensional change card sort task. Developmental Science, 7(3), 325–339. Bialystok, E., & Craik, F. I. M. (2010). Cognitive and Linguistic Processing in the Bilingual Mind. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(1), 19–23. Genesee, F. (2008). Early dual language learning. Zero to three, 29(1), 17-23. Genesee, F. (2009). Early childhood bilingualism: Perils and possibilities. Journal of Applied Research on Learning, 2(2), 1-21. Grosjean, F., & Li, P. (2013). The Psycholinguistics of Bilingualism (1st ed.). Wiley-Blackwell. Levorato, M. C., & Marini, A. (2019). Il bilinguismo in età evolutiva. Aspetti cognitivi, linguistici, neuropsicologici, educativi. Steinberg, L., Bornstein, M. H., Vandell, D. L., & R. (2010). Life-Span Development: Infancy Through Adulthood (PSY 232 Developmental Psychology) (001 ed.). Cengage Learning. Poulin-Dubois, D., Blaye, A., Coutya, J., & Bialystok, E. (2011). The effects of bilingualism on toddlers’ executive functioning. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 108(3), 567–579. Ubaydillo o’g’li, N. B. (2022). Effective Way to Early Childhood for Language Learning. Web of Scholars: Multidimensional Research Journal, 1, 9-12. Yoshida, H. (2008). The cognitive consequences of early bilingualism. Zero to Three, 29(2), 26-30.

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Antonio Verolino

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