Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

This post was originally published on March 5, 2014. 

A new report published by the Society for Research in Child Development — “Multilingual Children: Beyond Myths and Toward Best Practices” — focuses on “the strength of being multilingual and its benefit for children’s later outcomes and well-being.”

Endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the report draws on more than 100 studies. “The qualitative review concludes that multilingualism is an advantage to be nurtured and maintained rather than a risk factor to be eradicated early in a child’s life,” Education Week explains in a recent review of the report.

In the Education Week piece, Allyssa McCabe, a lead author and a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, debunks two myths covered in the report.

Myth Number 1: Learning or speaking more than one language will confuse a child.”

Reality: Children raised and educated in a ‘high quality language environment’ where both languages are ‘valued and used in an ongoing way’ will experience ‘cognitive, social, and potentially economic benefits.’ Children exposed to more than one language have greater tissue density in the areas of the brain related to ‘language, memory, and attention.’ The effect is particularly strong when the additional language is introduced before age five.”

“Myth Number 2: Parents of English learners should speak to their babies and children in English all the time even if they, themselves, do not feel comfortable interacting in English.”

Reality: Like children who grow up speaking a single language, multilingual children do best when they ‘hear substantial amounts of responsive, positive, diverse, complex talk about objects and past events of interest to them.’ This is what is meant by a ‘high-quality language environment.’

As the report explains, “Parents who are not fluent in English should not be told to speak English instead of their native language to their children; children require fluent input, and fluent input in another language will transfer to learning a second or third language.”

Indeed, what monolingual and multilingual children have in common is “that more language exposure results in more language learning.” So whether parents speak English or another language, their goal is the same: create high-quality language environments by, in part, consistently using rich vocabulary, a positive tone, and sentences of varying complexity.

Creating a high-quality language environment also includes reading books. Sharing books in any language builds crucial literacy skills. And “parents who talk at length with their children regarding past experiences (i.e., by elaborately and extensively reminiscing with their children) have children who excel in narrating… and this may in turn influence many other levels of language.”

A strong foundation in early literacy influences children’s literacy later in life as they progress through school. Research has found, for example, that kindergarten vocabulary is highly correlated with reading ability through high school.

As children age, parents should actively consider promoting use of two or more languages because “studies of children in environments that actively support multilingualism,” such as bilingual programs in the United States and Canada, “indicate that if dual language input is maintained, multilingual children can perform on par with monolingual children in both languages by the age of 10 years.” Indeed, “there is strong evidence to suggest that when children are reared in a high-quality language environment,” where both languages “are valued and used in an ongoing way, learning multiple languages has cognitive, social, and potentially economic benefits.”

The final section of the report calls for getting the word out: sharing this information through mass media, home visiting programs, and child care centers. The word can also be spread by policymakers and by early childhood professionals, such as speech and language pathologists, psychologists, and pediatricians who see children and families during routine check-ups.

As the United States grows increasingly more multilingual, it could tap this natural resource by helping young children engage in robust language environments starting from birth.