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Language Learning

Multilingual families

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Multilingual families are those that speak two or more languages and raise their children in a multicultural environment.

Such an upbringing exposes children to different languages at a young age, which can be advantageous and significantly expedite the language learning process. However, there has been criticism that it can also lead to the children confusing the languages and rejecting one of them.

The following information weighs up the arguments for and against, using the latest research to ascertain what effect multilingual environments actually have on children.


The practical effects

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Aside from the communicative advantages of being able to speak a second or third language, recent studies claim that, from a very young age, multilingualism can:

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  1. help children master reading and writing more quickly - knowledge of a second language helps a child comprehend written languages faster
  2. protect against age-related cognitive changes later in life - being fluent in two languages seems to prevent some of the cognitive decline seen in same-age single language speakers
  3. children will learn multiple languages at the same speed as a child learning only one - they will also sound like native speakers in both

Negative preconceptions

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There are a number of arguments against multilingualism, although in the last few years, these have largely been disproved by more focused and relevant research.

“A child should learn one language properly first; then you can start teaching the other.”

Children who study two languages simultaneously in a supportive family environment often learn them both well. If it is a stressful environment they may have language development problems - but the same is true for children learning only one language in that environment.

“A child who learns two languages won’t feel at home in either of them.”

This preconception stems from children growing up who are unable to identify with either of the languages or cultures they have learnt. Adults who have grown up in a multilingual environment generally report no problem and children who feel accepted by both their cultures will identify with both.

“Bilinguals have to translate from their weaker to their stronger language.”

The overwhelming majority of bilinguals can think in either of their two languages. They do not, as some monolinguals assume, think in one language and immediately translate into the other.

“Bilinguals have split personalities.”

Some bilinguals do report feeling that they have a different “personality” for each language. However, this may be because they are acting according to different cultural norms when speaking each of their languages. The change in language cues a change in cultural expectations.