One language, two Languages, or More: the Developmental View

How best to foster the considerable advantages of bilingualism in our kids —at home and school

By Eleonora Villegas-Reimers and Fernando Reimers


It is increasingly clear that the ability to speak several languages has numerous advantages. The mastery of Spanish or Portuguese among Latinos in the United States contributes to an affirming sense of cultural identity. Despite these obvious advantages, many Latino parents wonder whether the use of Spanish or Portuguese at home will impede academic progress. This is why some Latino parents who speak English well decide to talk to the children in that language with the intent of assisting them in the transition to school. Some of these children eventually ask why their parents did not support their own learning or maintenance of Spanish. Anecdotal evidence adds to the confusion of many parents. There are stories of children entering school without English who are then held back one or two years while they learn English; there are also the stories of children who come to school without speaking any English and three months later speak it fluently.

Given this diversity of opinions and stories, deciding which way to go in terms of language support may be difficult. It is indeed not possible to offer specific recommendations for particular cases not knowing the context and circumstances of each family, the level of language command (both Spanish and English) of its members and the characteristics of the schools attended by students. However, two well-established aspects of how language develops can assist parents in thinking through this decision: The first are the different components of language, and the second the typical stages of language development.

When children learn to speak one language or more, most follow a predictable pattern, which allows us to identify when a child has a special need or needs extra help. These stages of language development include the following: during the first three months of life, the child communicates by reflexes and behaviors such as crying, smiling, etc. This form of communication is important even though it does not involve recognizable words or syllables as the child begins to develop communication skills and patterns that are the foundation of communication. At about 3 months, the child begins to make sounds using only vowels, and this is followed by babbling—repeating the same syllable vowel and consonant blends (ba-ba-ba). Until this point, all the world’s children, regardless of the languages they are exposed to or even whether they can hear, produce the same babbling sounds, including sounds that do not exist in the language that the child has heard. This changes around 9 months, when the child begins to combine syllables of different vowels and consonants (though without any meaning) and only includes those sounds he hears consistently. At this point significant changes in the child’s brain take place which explain the frequent adoption of certain sounds and the disappearance of other sounds, unnecessary for communication in the context where the child lives. It is at this point when we have the first evidence that having been exposed only to Spanish or English will have an impact in the sounds that children will be later able to reproduce.

It is around the first year that children begin to say their first words, generally producing only one at a time. Many say that even if the child uses only one word at a time (instead of more from the between 30-50 words typically known at this age), he is able to understand much more. A few months later, children begin to combine words (for example, no longer saying “water,” but instead “I want water” or “cold water”) and a few months later, between the ages of 2 and 3,  matching three, four and five words to make simple sentences. If the child has heard and has been spoken to in one language, that will be the one used, but if he has been spoken to in two languages, the child will use both without any difficulty, always associating each language with particular people or particular situations (for example, English in the pre-school Spanish at home). When this occurs, the child works in both languages as their native language, following the developmental stages in the same sequence for the two languages, and if there is any delay in reaching developmental milestones at the “typical” ageit is never more than about 6 months, and this difference disappears once the child is 4 or 5 years old. There is an advantage in talking to the child in two and three languages from birth, provided that their use is consistent.

Learning to Speak
A child must master four aspects when learning a language. First are the sounds used in the language to pronounce and intonate words (when asking questions, or when expressing surprise, for example). This is known as phonology, and it is specific to language groups (for example, Spanish and Italian have the same pronunciation, but English and Spanish do not). Second, the rules used to create this language as sentences that communicate a clear message, these rules, or grammar, include the ways negatives are used, the word order when asking questions, the use of contractions, singular and plurals, etc. These also vary between English and Spanish although these differences are smaller than between these languages and others from different language families, such as Arabic, Hebrew or Mandarin. Third, the meanings, not only of the words, but also of certain expressions that are particular to each language, this is known as semantics. And fourth, the child must learn to interpret and use all the social rules in the usage of the language (for example, when using ‘tu’ and when using ‘usted’, in Spanish, what tones of voice are appropriate to different places, such as in a park or at home, and when it is appropriate to speak in a lower volume, such as in a library or theater). The latter is called pragmatics and also differs according to the culture in which the language is spoken.

These four components are identified in all world languages and children who are exposed to one, two or more languages, learn in the same way: by listening to conversations where they speak and are spoken to and where there is a social interaction. These components cannot be learned by listening to the radio or TV because the child, in these situations, is not interacting with a person who responds, asks, listens, etc. Of these components, we know that phonology and grammar must be learned at specific points in time in the development of children, and once past that point, the person may  speak the language with grammatical structures and accents recognizable as foreign. From that point of view it is a great advantage to start talking to your child in a second language as early as possible.

Recent research with bilingual children shows that if the child has a solid base of language in at least one language, she can learn a second language in school quickly. If people at home who  speak English as well as Spanish well, then talking to children consistently in both languages, for instance one parent in each of the languages, will help develop both languages. However, if the family speaks only Spanish, developing a solid foundation in that language will be important for the subsequent development of  literacy skills later on.

Fernando M. Reimers is a professor of Education at Harvard University and serves with a number of educational organizations. Eleonora Villegas-Reimers is a professor of Human Development at Wheelock College.


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