Most parents have at least an intuitive understanding of basic child development, but when you throw a second language into the mix, things can get a bit muddled. Not only does bilingualism change the rate at which a child can develop her languages but it also adds a cultural aspect to her expressive development. Parents unfamiliar with the neurological development of children and how that development relates to language need not worry, though, as much of the language development that bilingual children experience relies on the external environment.
The development of a language and the ability to express oneself in that language can only occur when children gain exposure to their target languages. For the native language, this usually is not a problem. But for the second language, different children have different levels of exposure. The amount and timing of exposure can have profound and long-lasting effects on how that child’s second-language development proceeds. Erika Hoff, psychologist and language specialist, states in her book “Language Development” how parents can shorten the path to fluency for the second language by giving their children earlier and more frequent exposure to the second language. Hoff also points out how children who begin learning their second language earlier are less likely to have an accent when speaking in their second language.
One aspect of bilingualism that parents should be aware of is the parallel development of both the languages. A child who is growing up in a bilingual environment or household will encounter some obstructions that their monolingual peers do not have. Parents of bilingual children will often notice that their kids seem to be less expressive in their speech and writing than classmates of the same age. Bilingualism isn’t a direct obstruction to expressive abilities, but it is a direct obstruction to language-learning speed. According to Hoff, while monolingual children can commit all of their language development resources to learning the native language, bilingual children must dedicate the same amount of cognitive resources to learning two languages, effectively slowing down the learning speed of both languages. But parent’s need not worry prematurely: bilingual children do catch up to their peers, and when they do, they’ll be speaking two languages with an equal amount of expressive ability.
Language and Expressive Ability
Not all languages are equal in terms of how wieldy they are for their users. Children learning two languages will often encounter the realization that one language is more useful in expressing certain ideas. Part of this has to do with language’s entanglement with culture. Some cultures, such as those in the Western world, encourage uniqueness, independence and self-expression. Correspondingly, their languages make them more apt for self-expression. For example, English has roughly twice the vocabulary as Chinese, making it more stylistically varied. Don’t be surprised if you find your bilingual child preferring one language over another for specific types of expressions.
Personality and Language Development
Different children develop their languages at different speeds. While exposure and intelligence do play roles, one of the more palpable roles is that of personality. An extroverted child, for example, is more likely to take risks in how she expresses herself, using sentence patterns and vocabularies she might not be entirely familiar with. In contrast, an introverted child might prefer to be more careful with how he expresses himself, relying on fixed, tried-and-true phrases. This personality interaction particularly concerns parents of bilingual children because of the impressions that language teachers receive from children. A teacher might mistakenly take an introverted bilingual child, a child who already suffers from a slower language development pattern due to learning two languages at once, as a slow learner, which might not be the case. A concerned parent should make her child’s situation clear to language teachers so that her child can get the exposure he needs.