Multilingualism: No cause for concern
In increasingly multicultural communities, parents more often find themselves in circumstances in which it is logical to wonder, “What language or languages am I going to encourage in my child?” From this question, a variety of considerations are made. Might teaching two languages simultaneously impair the mastery of one language? If a child has a speech impairment, will teaching him two different languages cause even more problems? The overarching theme of many of the questions is whether a child can be raised bilingually without learning, social or functional delay. Research on early childhood bilingualism has been somewhat conflicted, with some showing detrimental effects of raising a child with two languages, and others suggesting that no negative effects exist.
In a recent study, Sharynne McLeod, Linda Harrison, Chrystal Whiteford and Sue Walker shed light on this contradiction, exploring these questions by relating bilingualism and speech and language abilities of nearly 5000 children to academic and social-emotional outcomes longitudinally across critical years of child development (4-5 years, 6-7 years and 8-9 years).
It turned out that on school readiness tests, multilingual children performed equally as well or better than their English-only peers. Among children with speech and language concern, multilingual children had similar scores to all other children. Additionally, while the performance in literacy and language of multilingual children with speech and language concern was lower than monolingual children with typical speech and language development at age 8-9, they received similar scores as the group of English-only children with speech and language concern. Regarding social and emotional wellbeing, the study showed that the poorer behavioral outcomes for multilingual children with speech and language difficulties at age 4-5 were no longer a concern as the children transitioned and progressed into the early school years.
Why is this important?
Even though the multilingual children with speech and language concern performed more poorly on English vocabulary and behavioral adjustment at 4-5 years of age, with time they began to perform at a similar level to English-only children with speech and language concern in language and literacy, as well as similar to other typically developing children on social-emotional results by ages 6-9. Thus, this evidence shows us that raising a bilingual child is not detrimental as some have suggested. Though the multilingual children with speech and language concern performed differently in the first 4-5 years of life, they were able to improve their achievement in the following years by working on English language acquisition at school and with the help of targeted services to support acquisition of English.
In short, the findings of the study support the idea that any additional difficulties brought on by the input of multiple languages are only temporary for children with speech or language concern. For children with no concern, there also appeared to be no ultimate difference in performance between monolingual and multilingual children. Therefore, while it is prudent for a parent to take measures when they have a concern over their child’s language development, a multilingual household is not cause for worry.
McLeod, Sharynne, Harrison, Linda J., Whiteford, Chrystal, & Walker, Sue (2016) Multilingualism and speech-language competence in early childhood: Impact on academic and social-emotional outcomes at school. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 34, pp. 53-66.