Why It’s Easier for Children to Become Bilingual

Syelle Graves talks about language fluency, how people learn language, and why it's easier for children to become bilingual.

Syelle Graves, Writing for
7-minute read
Episode #482

What About Raising Bilingual Children When You Are Monolingual?

Well, this is unlikely to be effective, although some foreign language exposure is great and fun for kids. As linguist Francois Grosjean explains, two of the most important factors in achieving success are amount of exposure, which is difficult to get enough of if neither the parents nor the society speaks the language, and then need, meaning that children must be in a position where they truly need to use the language to communicate most effectively with certain people. A 50/50 bilingual school can sometimes work, but they are hard to find.

Use It Or Lose It

So, a critical element of human language that is frequently overlooked by non-linguists can be expressed by that old saying “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” Some people may plan to move abroad for a few months, or study a language for a few years, and expect that this knowledge will be set for life. However, trying to speak a language that you studied years ago and never spoke again usually doesn’t work very well.

In addition, some research shows that speaking more than one language can have some cognitive benefits, such as a delayed onset of dementia, or slightly faster reaction time, but as linguist Ellen Bialystok confirms, you have to regularly speak both languages. Studying Spanish for a few years in high school and rarely using it again won’t help you stave off Alzheimer’s.

Interestingly, some studies suggest that because bilingual people are so good at switching between languages, they’re better at switching between other tasks too. Other studies contradict this, but the important thing for sure is that being able to communicate with so many more people around the world is a true advantage! It is a challenge to learn a second language as an adult, but it’s worth the effort, and if you want your children to have the advantages of being bilingual, try to speak only that home language to them, as early as possible, and as much as you can.

That segment was written by Syelle Graves, who is a linguist and professor at the City University of New York at LaGuardia Community College. 

Multilingual Children image courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Syelle Graves, Writing for Grammar Girl

Syelle Graves has a master’s degree in linguistics and is the assistant director of ILETC (Institute for Language Education in Transcultural Context). You can find her at syellegraves.com.

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