Question of the Week Podcast

Question of the Week episode

Wed, 6th Nov 2013

Is it a good thing to raise your baby to be bilingual?

Baby (c) Emma and Dave Weatherup

We find out if raising your baby to be bilingual is a good or bad thing for brain development.

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In this edition of Question of the Week

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  • Bilingual babies brain development

    Hiya! I love your podcast! I have been listening to it for a while now and today I heard a story that specially caught my attention: it was about people in Glasgow being influenced by the media when it comes to their accent. My question is related, but not directly. I'm Spani...



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I would think it might be confusing for a very young infant to be changing the language too much.  However, young children seem to have the capacity to pick up multiple languages far better than older individuals.

It might be good to have consistency.  For example having Mommy-Speak & Daddy-Speak. CliffordK, Tue, 12th Nov 2013

I've heard suggestions before that it can delay development in other ways a little, but with an overall gain in time. There was one case where a baby/child was brought up with four people speaking different languages to it and it learned all four without any trouble. There must come a point where the number of languages used becomes harmful, but I don't think anyone who has the option to bring up a child with two native languages should do anything other than just that. David Cooper, Wed, 13th Nov 2013

There's something to be said for learning a second language formally and later in life. It seems that formal learning through grammar and written words rather than immersive spoken words uses a different area of the brain from "primary" speech.

My aunt studied French in her forties and became fluent after a few years' residence in France. She later suffered a stroke that rendered her incommunicado in English - not merely unable to speak clearly, but apparently without comprehension, but my uncle was able to hold a reasonable conversation with her in French until she died.  alancalverd, Sat, 16th Nov 2013

Speaking to teachers of young children, they see many children who are proficient in two languages.

However, when you have a child with delayed development, it is better to concentrate on getting them proficient in one language, and then worry about starting them on a second language, evan_au, Sun, 17th Nov 2013

It's also important to consider the total amount of input to the child. Some children are exposed to very little interaction while others get a lot, and I suspect that a lot of re tar dat ion (I split that word into parts in case it gets blocked) is caused by lack of interaction rather than there being anything wrong with the child's brain. If there is plenty of interaction though and the child is still backward, it may indeed be best to stick to one language, but that's something that would need careful study to make sure it really is the right thing to do, because a second native language might still bring greater benefits by helping to make their mind more flexible. David Cooper, Sun, 17th Nov 2013

I've always wondered how babies and young children can keep the languages separate (at least I think they do) and can switch back and forth instead of mixing vocabulary words of both languages or using the grammar or word order of one language with the vocabulary of another. I can almost understand it if different people spoke one language or another to the child, but if both parents, or lots of family members switch between languages, how a small child learns what goes with what? Sometimes I think language acquisition is the most amazing change a human ever undergoes. cheryl j, Tue, 19th Nov 2013

Babies don't learn languages as isolated disciplines or separate words, because that's not how we teach them: they hear, and therefore learn, strings of sounds in context, and acquire most of them at a reflex level rather than part of conscious (analytic - process - synthetic) thought. I think this is why intelligent and articulate parents are often surprised that their children mutter extensive babble which suddenly turns into complete and very adult sentences - it's what they have always heard. Fluent linguists also respond reflexively in conversation, so an everyday question in French or English, say, will elicit a reflex and idiomatic response in the same language, but a technical question in German may require a conscious process of searching for the vocabulary as well as the content, and the response may be more "formally correct" than idiomatic. 

I guess it gets more difficult if you learn later in life but I've noticed that after a few days working in France I start "thinking in French" and sometimes find it difficult to switch back to English at the everyday level, so the reflex response hasn't died completely - I just need a few thousand more idioms! alancalverd, Wed, 20th Nov 2013

I do find it sad how quickly a language can die off in a family.

So, and Italian American family.  The Grandmother may speak fluent Italian.  The mother some Italian, and the 3rd generation, NONE.

I do find it a bit disturbing the number of Latin Americans in the USA speaking exclusively Spanish.  However, I presume the school children are immersed in English. 

So, perhaps one way of preserving the heritage is to speak the native language at home, while speaking English in school, and in mixed social groups. CliffordK, Wed, 20th Nov 2013

Something of a sidetrack, but if I emigrate from A to B it's presumably because I prefer the culture of B to that of A. So why would I want to "preserve the heritage"? And more to the point, why would my hosts at B want me to? alancalverd, Wed, 20th Nov 2013

Good point.
A lot of people like to identify themselves by their ancestral heritage.  And, perhaps claiming to be a product of merged heritage sets them apart from others. 
Human races may also indicate heritage, so one might see a person with obvious Asian descent, without them knowing a word of their ancestral language. 

Of course, there are business and economic benefits of knowing multiple languages, and being able to interact with foreign tourists and foreign businesses.  And, if one chooses to visit relatives in the country of origin, it is always good to speak their language. CliffordK, Wed, 20th Nov 2013

There's no doubt in my mind that future generations will consider it entirely normal to have at least one language for talking to friends and family, and another for talking to absolutely everyone else. Travel, mass culture, mobile phones, the internet, and the simple fact that business is ultimately more important than politics, means that within a couple of generations pretty well everyone will be fluent in English from the age of 8. alancalverd, Sun, 8th Dec 2013

I do think English will become the dominant language.  However, Spanish could easily become dominant, especially in the Americas.  And, of course, the influence of Chinese, or Russian shouldn't be underestimated.  CliffordK, Sun, 8th Dec 2013

Tilda appears to be doing everything right. David Cooper, Sun, 8th Dec 2013

Logically, Spanish would be the preferred choice of world language because, like German, its narrow provenance has resulted in very consistent spelling, with the advantage over German of less distinction between spoken and formal grammar. However history, and particularly the military and economic success of the English-speaking world in the 20th century, has determined the primary language of the world culture and the bastard nature of English has given it a unique resilience and flexibility for the acquisition of new words from other sources.

I think the simplicity of an alphabetic language is not lost on Chinese speakers, and the predominance of the Roman alphabet in Europe and southern Asia makes Russian an unlikely choice of second or world language for most people since the breakup of the USSR.

All of which casts a shadow over the oft-repeated moan of educationalists that the British are so monolingual. The question to be asked is what should our second language be? Welsh and Gaelic are regarded as first languages by many Brits, but are not spoken outside these islands, and a fair number of young native Brits are fluent in Urdu or Hindi at home. Whilst it might be fun to use Spanish, French, German or Italian on holiday, business throughout Europe is by common consent increasingly conducted in English - especially if you are collaborating on a product to be exported to the rest of the world. Per contra, Latin remains the lingua franca of law and medicine, and will continue to provide le mot juste until the zeitgeist changes. alancalverd, Mon, 9th Dec 2013

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