Despite certain myths to the contrary, young children do not learn two languages as easily as one. New research suggests that children who are raised in a bilingual environment develop certain aspects of language at a slightly slower rate than their monolingual counterparts, although they catch up by the time they reach school age.
“There is no such thing as magic,” Dr Erika Hoff said emphatically. “Language acquisition depends on language exposure, and children who hear two languages must hear less of each.”
Hoff was one of three speakers who presented research on bilingualism last Friday at Concordia during a panel discussion hosted by the Centre for Research in Human Development.
She studied language development in toddlers from Spanish and English bilingual families, beginning when the infants were 22 months old. She found that although bilingual and monolingual children acquire new words at the same rate, the monolingual children had slightly better vocabularies in English. They were also quicker to combine words and use longer sentences; however, by the age of 30 months, the bilingual children had all caught up.
Krista Byers-Heinlein, an assistant professor in Concordia’s psychology department, reached some similar conclusions. Her research focused on young infants with English/Tagalog-speaking mothers. She explained that babies can distinguish between two languages nearly from birth. Whereas monolingual babies showed a clear preference for the language of their mother, bilingual babies showed an equal preference for both. Byers-Heinlein found that at 14 months, however, bilingual babies were a little slower than monolinguals to distinguish between similar-sounding new words and to associate them with objects, though this difference was erased by 17 months.
She measured infant preference and learning by something she termed “high-amplitude sucking,’ where the babies were given pacifiers hooked up to measure their habits. More sucking meant more interest in the words being spoken. “You can’t exactly teach a baby to press a button,” Byers-Heinlein said with a laugh.
Finally, Concordia psychology professor Dr. Norman Segalowitz took the podium to explain his research surrounding second-language acquisition in adults. His recent work has focused on finding ways to measure how well people think and process in their second language.
One of his tests asked his subjects to make quick judgements on whether words words in a series represented living or nonliving things. He found that the people who answered quickest and most automatically were also the most stable in their answers.
In an email, Segalowitz explained that his next step is to see whether his measures of mental processing in a second language correspond to his subjects’ ability to speak it. “We’ve all had the experience of getting A’s in French class and then going out and not being able to have a conversation with a French speaker,” he pointed out.
“These and related measures will be very useful for studying the barriers people face in the real world as they try to become more fluent in their second language,” he explained.