By Narae Hyun, Speech-Language Pathologist and Clinical Psychologist

with writer Sam Lu

Raising a bilingual child can be nerve-racking. As parents, we want our children to be well-equipped at navigating an increasingly globalized world. At the same time, we want them to be rooted in their culture, and language is an important part of their heritage. But are these two aspects of language necessarily opposed?

The short answer is no; in fact, for typically developing children, they complement each other. 

In this article, we share some insight about this and other common anxieties that parents raising bilingual children encounter. We also address concerns specific to children with Language Impairment.

Why support a child’s home language when it is not the language used in the school or in the main community?

Family is an important part of a child’s upbringing, and as a parent, the ability to effectively communicate with your child is vital to their healthy development. For young children, the development of social, emotional, cognitive, and communication skills are interdependent, meaning they occur together and complement each other. These skills develop within a cultural context, which for young children mainly consists of their immediate and extended family.

Language allows us to communicate family values and expectations, express care and concern, provide structure and discipline, and help our children interpret their experiences as they move through the world. However, without encouragement, young second-language learners may risk losing proficiency or not fully acquiring fluency in their home language. When this occurs, they may slowly lose access to a major source of support and guidance from their family and their culture.

In children with Language Impairment, language development is delayed. This means that compared to same-age, typically-developing peers with similar cultural and linguistic experiences, their language skills are less proficient. This slower pace of learning, combined with a delayed introduction to the majority language, means that children with Language Impairment require more input in their home language to maintain steady development.

Thus, facilitating, and not just maintaining, home language skills is important to ensure that young children retain access to their culture and support systems. This is especially important for children with Language Impairment.

Does continued support for the home language undermine attainment in a second language?

A commonly held misconception is that supporting the home language undermines the development of a second-language. However, research in second-language acquisition has shown that home language support may actually benefit second language learning. For typically developing children who grow up in homes where English is not the primary spoken language, providing intense support for the home language during preschool years has been found to promote long term mastery of English. For older students, strong home language skills have been shown to positively impact English academic achievement.

Are children with Language Impairment capable of learning two languages?

For children with Language Impairment, the picture is less clear. One commonly held belief is that learning more than one language adds an extra burden on the child’s language learning system. Little research is available on the impact of learning more than two languages at once. However, studies have found that for children with Language Impairment, learning a second language does not interfere with development of the majority language.

Should we support the home language if it is “mixed”?

While the previous questions focused mainly on families with only one non-majority language being spoken at home, what about cases where there are multiple home languages?

Here again, the commonly held belief is that a mixed language environment can be harmful for a child’s language development, and that it can either cause or exacerbate Language Impairment. However, current research evidence does not support this claim.

In fact, most children who grow up in families where multiple languages are spoken do not exhibit communication delays. “Code switching”, or alternating between two or more languages or dialects, is a common practice in multilingual households, and is recognized as a valid and legitimate way of communicating.

Nonetheless, it is important to ensure that children develop proficiency in each language so they can also communicate effectively with monolingual speakers. For parents to facilitate this, they don’t necessarily need to change how they talk with their children. Instead, it may be helpful to also engage with their children in language building activities that are more defined and more easily done in a single language, such as book reading, singing, storytelling, rhyming, or rapping.