Early Childhood Bilingualism

Tamara GuoChild Development

What You Can Expect When Your Baby Learns Two Languages Simultaneously

As of 2005 it was reported that 25% of all young children ages birth to three in the United States were living in immigrant families. The largest proportion of these children had origins in Mexico, but the remainder of the group had origins that spanned the entire globe. Many of these young children are growing up in families where in addition to English a second native language is also spoken.

Researches & educators used to think that learning two languages at one time (known as simultaneous bilingualism) had a negative impact on children’s development and may even cause delays or other developmental problems. Today’s newer research, conducted across the disciplines of education, psychology, speech and hearing sciences and neural processes now suggests otherwise saying that early bilingualism may in fact have positive consequences on cognitive and neural development.

Today’s new thinking tells us that learning a second language in early childhood or learning two languages simultaneously is not the difficult process it becomes after about the age of 10 or 12. Research has shown that after this age the brain handles language differently because until then it is constantly making neurological connections – after this age the hard-wiring slows down.

When learning two languages simultaneously, young children will typically have smaller vocabularies in each language compared with children who are learning only one language. However, when you combine the words that the child knows in each language, often their vocabulary is larger than their same age peers who speak only one language.

Children do sometimes “mix” languages, for example saying a Spanish word for milk and an English word for cup, but this does not mean the child is confused. It has been found that many families combine languages in their daily interactions at home, throwing an English word into a sentence in Vietnamese for example. As children get older they will adjust their language according to whom they are speaking with, by speaking more English with friends and teachers at school, but then coming home and speaking only in Vietnamese to their grandparents.

When assessing language delays in children, therapists & teachers should always consider whether a child is a dual language learner and then assess the child in each language to gain an accurate picture of their speech and language skills.

Parents and teachers alike can help support young bilingual children by using gestures, actions and facial expressions to enhance the spoken message to a child, repeating new words and phrases frequently, expanding on any single words the child uses by putting them into a sentence and also allowing for plenty of daily play activities that do not require the use of spoken language (such as the sand table and outdoor play).

Below are some tips for parents to help their child learn English as well as their home language:

  • Always talk a lot to your child in your language. Even when the child is too little to understand you should talk to them about what you are doing when you are cooking, writing, shopping etc…
  • Teach your child nursery rhymes and songs in your own language.
  • Tell your child stories in your language. Encourage your child to join in with the story telling.
  • Talk to your children about what they did at playgroup, nursery or school in your language. If they use English words repeat what they have said using your language.
  • Don’t be frightened to use your language in public. If some people don’t like it, it is their problem not yours.
  • Make sure that your child knows the names of the different languages he speaks.
  • Check that your child knows which language has which name.
  • Take your child to concerts, plays, poetry readings, films etc. where they will hear people using your language.
  • Try to make sure your children play with children who speak the same home language as they do.
  • Find out if there is a community language school in your area where your language is taught. Your child might benefit from attending classes there.
  • Try to find books written in your language for your child. If there aren’t any try to make your own or ask someone else to help you.
  • Make your child feel proud of your language.
  • Don’t laugh or tease your child because of her accent or if she makes mistakes.


Journal of Zero to Three November 2008, The Lives of America’s Youngest Children in Immigrant Families by Hernandez, Denton and McCarthy (2008);
Dual Language Learners in Early Care and Education Settings (2008);
Bilingual Children: a guide for parents and caregivers, by Foufou Savitzky, London Language and Literacy Unit, South Bank University, 1994;
Literacy Trust UK website.

by Tamara Guo, M. Ed. and Developmental Specialist