Dual Language Learning Among Infants and Toddlers: Addressing Misconceptions About Babies’ Brains

Blog Post
Feb. 8, 2023

Parents of dual language learners (DLLs) are often advised not to speak to their infants and toddlers in more than one language. This advice is rooted in outdated notions that speaking to a child in multiple languages, especially when they are infants and toddlers, will confuse them and cause delays in their speech and language development. This belief could not be further from the truth.

During a recent BabyTalks webinar Beth Zack, PhD and Marley Jarvis, PhD shared research findings on infants' and toddlers' inherent capacity to learn multiple languages and identified strategies that educators and adults can use to support DLLs’ development. Through the course of the webinar, Zack and Jarvis also addressed several misconceptions about language learning in the first three years of life.

Misconception 1: The brain cannot accommodate learning more than one language in the early years.

Reality: Infant and toddler brains are more sophisticated than adults give them credit for and there is no better time to solidify bilingualism. As Zack and Jarvis shared, language development starts before a child is even born as babies begin to hear their parents’ voices in the womb during the third trimester. Because of this, babies can actually identify their parents’ home language as soon as they are born, and what is more, they are born being able to distinguish between the different sounds of all languages. Additionally, research has shown that babies can recognize a “foreign language,” that is, a language that differs from the predominant language used in their environment. They are also more interested in sounds from foreign languages because they are less familiar with them.

As stated during the webinar, the brain makes one million new connections each second during the first three years of life. During this time, language learning is helping shape infants’ and toddlers’ brains. These new connections, however, grow stronger or weaker with experience, or lack thereof. For example, around six to eight months old, babies are equally good at recognizing their home versus a “foreign” language. And by the time they are 10–12 months old, they are beginning to specialize and really hone in on their home language versus other languages. This developmental period, what is often called the sensitive period, is known to be prime for learning sounds and developing languages. However, it is our experiences during this time, like access to a bilingual environment, that guide which connections grow stronger.

Play Video: Bilingual and monolingual baby brains differ in response to language

Source: Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-Labs)

Zack and Javis shared that DLLs have a longer sensitive period, meaning that they have a bit more time to become experts in both languages. However, this should not be taken as an indication of a delay or deficiency. In fact, DLLs are known to have stronger executive functioning and cognitive flexibility, and research has actually shown that if a child does have a developmental delay or disability, being a DLL actually helps them. For example, Zack and Jarvis shared research that showed that DLLs with autism actually showed fewer challenges with executive function skills.

Misconception 2: Being exposed to more than one language will lead DLLs to fall behind their monolingual peers in speech and language development.

Reality: Babies reach language developmental milestones at the same time regardless of the number of languages they are learning. Bilingual and monolingual babies start babbling around four to six months old, say their first word around 12 months, start to combine words around 18 months, and so forth. When babies begin to form more complex sentences, they may code mix, or use multiple languages in a single sentence. Zack and Jarvis discussed how code mixing can be misinterpreted as a language delay, when it is in fact a display of very sophisticated linguistic and cognitive knowledge. According to research, when DLLs code mix they usually follow the grammatical rules in both languages and they seem to understand which of the two is the dominant language for the person they are communicating with. A study of two-year-old bilingual children found that DLLs will increase the proportion of words in a given language to match the language of their conversational partner. All of this occurs naturally without any direct teaching.

Furthermore, when language growth is captured in both languages, researchers find that dual language learners are learning words at the same rate as their monolingual peers and even have more sounds in their repertoire. However, since we typically only assess language growth in one language, most often English, we might be discounting about half of the words the child knows and misinterpret that as a language delay.

Misconception 3: Speaking a different language than their peers will harm DLLs’ ability to form social connections.

Reality: Children learn best through play and, as Zack noted, “the beauty of play is that children don’t need language.” DLLs who don’t speak the same language as their peers can still interact and communicate through actions, gestures, and eye gaze. Play-based social interactions are actually ideal language learning spaces for all young children. These interactions build on what research tells us about language development, which is that children learn language best when they are exposed to the same words through different scenarios and when they engage in conversations or activities with language models, whether that is an adult figure or classroom peer. These opportunities are not only beneficial for language learning, but also for nurturing social connections among both dual language learners and monolingual children.

All children are born ready and capable of learning multiple languages, and the advantages of bilingualism and multilingualism extend across all learning domains. The findings shared during the webinar show that the path to becoming bilingual can start before we are born, but this development must be actively nurtured and supported. Addressing these and other misconceptions about language learning in early childhood is critical, given the irreplaceable role the home environment plays in shaping the types of linguistic experiences DLLs are exposed to, including their parents’ home language. Luckily there are strategies that all adults caring for children can deploy to create a more supportive language learning environment. Some covered during the webinar include maximizing back-and-forth interactions; fostering small group social interactions where one-on-one attention can be given; utilizing “parentese,” or speech that varies in pitch, pace, and word repetition, which can help infants and toddlers recognize differences among languages; and most importantly, by modeling language that opens the door for conversation and communication with young children.

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