Bilingual babies- good or bad?

April 6, 2016


 As a multilingual mother, I found myself  defending my plan to teach my child multiple languages right from the time he was born to well-meaning, but anxious, friends and family. There is anecdotal evidence out there that teaching a baby to sign or exposing them to multiple languages from birth causes them to speak later than babies who are only ever exposed to one language. Many people believe that babies aren't capable of learning language. Others believe that "over-loading" a baby's brain causes them to develop more slowly in general or to miss out on other brain development that is more "age appropriate".


My experience, personally, is that that is not true. I spoke many languages to my son when he was an infant, in addition to teaching him sign language. Every day I would do my best to speak as much of one of the foreign languages I speak as possible to him, only inserting English when my sleep-deprivation-addled brain had no choice. At one time, I was trying to juggle Japanese, French, Spanish, and Italian but found that it was just too much for ME to keep track of. So I pared it down to just Japanese, Spanish and Sign. I got copies of our favorite books in multiple languages so that we could read the same story in multiple languages. I played music that was sung in the different languages. I took advantage of our outrageous cable offerings to put on TV spoken by native speakers. And we signed. As one might expect, he began signing long before he began speaking anything. We would go to well checks and answer the developmental questions with " he is saying about 3 words but he signs 12 signs". Lucky for me, my Pediatrician knew that that was actually a good thing! Nevertheless, I ran into criticisms and anxieties from others.


Is he really going to learn to speak or will he only sign for the rest of this life?

Is he going to learn English?

I won't be able to talk to him because he speaks every language but English. 


Well, for the record, he is now 4 years old. He speaks English natively and is incredibly articulate. In fact, he began speaking in full, grammatically-correct sentences before he was 2. He understands a modicum of Japanese and Spanish. He still signs about 300 signs. He can hear the difference between languages and can identify French, Spanish and Japanese as they are being spoken. Most exciting for me though, he is INTERESTED in learning other languages. He recently got excited when he realized that a bunch of educational apps whose focus is something other than language learning are translated into other languages. He chooses to play them in different languages and does his best to repeat what is being said. Consequently, he is learning to count to 20 in Spanish, French, Italian, German, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, and Russian. He is learning the Russian alphabet and tons of vocabulary through the Russian phonics app. He is learning shapes vocabulary in Russian as well. Additionally, he is hearing instructions for his Minions game in all of those languages and Thai, Arabic, and a few others that I can neither identify by their sound, alphabet or flag.


So I know from my own personal experience that exposing him to all of these languages was good for him linguistically. But what about his other development, you say? Well, he's pretty advanced on all levels. He began reading just before he turned 4. He has demonstrated an understanding of what it means to add and subtract and is self-motivated to practice solving word problems. He understands a lot of scientific processes and mechanical concepts. He is physically strong, coordinated, and athletic. His emotional intelligence is highly developed. Even things he has struggled with from infancy are much improved. 


OK. "So what?" you say. After all, this is still just anecdotal. Maybe he is an anomaly.


Perhaps....except ....I just read the second of two studies I have found in the past month that say that babies who live in bilingual atmospheres develop better problem solving skills. The second goes as far as to say that they develop better executive function overall. Not only that, but even at 11 months, it was clear that the babies were learning English at the same rate as monolingual children! 


So, yes, please, teach your baby to sign, expose them to other languages any way you can, and don't worry that you are hindering them in any way! Hope to see you and/or your friends in my baby sign class.


In the meantime, read about the studies for yourself. Until I can figure out how to add links to my blog posts, you'll have to copy the following addresses and paste in your browser. Sorry for the inconvenience.


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