Q: I have a newborn. My first language is French; my husband’s is English. Is there any drawback to using both languages with our daughter?
A: Go for it. Exposing your baby to a natural and rich environment in both English and French will help her become bilingual before she ever begins any formal education. And, by providing your baby the opportunity to learn the language of your family's culture, you are helping her develop a cultural identity and connection to her family's roots.
There is still a lot of research to be done on childhood bilingualism. What we do know is that children can learn two or more languages during childhood without any problems. And that in fact, it is much easier to learn language in the early years. The following are some variables that impact bilingual development that parents should keep in mind:
- Babies learn at their own individual pace. So your child may develop her language skills at a different rate than a monolingual child and it may have nothing to do with the fact that she is learning two languages at once.
- A key variable for bilingual acquisition is consistency in how children are exposed to the two languages throughout their early childhood. You can provide consistency in a variety of ways. For example, you might speak only French to her while Dad speaks only English. Or, only French is spoken in the home and English outside the home. An important consideration for parents living in communities where the non-English language is not supported is to provide children with lots of non-English language experiences in the home to compensate.
- Be aware that your child may develop her vocabulary at a different rate than a monolingual child. Children learning two languages at the same time may have smaller vocabularies in one or both languages compared to children learning only one language. However, when both languages are taken into consideration, bilingual children tend to have the same number of words as monolinguals. Keep in mind that these differences are usually temporary. By the time most bilingual children have entered school, their vocabulary in both languages has caught up with monolingual children.
And don't worry about your child getting confused by the exposure to and use of two languages. She will begin to sort it out on her own, and even sometimes use words from both languages in the same sentence. This does not mean she is mixed up! This combined usage is a very normal stage. So delight in the fact that you are giving your child a wonderful gift of two languages.