Colin Baker

Colin set out 10 advantages of bilingualism and he indicated that it takes quite some energy, commitment and perseverance to raise children bilingually and that reminding yourself of the advantages when things don’t seem to be going well can help you to keep going. The balance of scientific evidence shows that each of the 10 advantages below is true, with the exception of no 4, which has not been researched enough. There is more detail on each of these points in his book “A Parent and Teachers Guide to Bilingualism”.

Communication advantages

  • Wider communication : bilinguals can communicate with extended family, community, international links. Bilinguals may also be bridge builders between different language communities.
  • Biliteracy : gives knowledge of different world views and values

Cultural advantages

  • Broader enculturation, “deep multiculturalism” and two language worlds of experience; two windows on the world !
  • Greater tolerance and less racism? It seems likely that bilinguals would be more tolerant of difference and diversity and less likely to be racist but this is yet to be scientifically tested.

Cognitive advantages

  • In tests that measure creative thinking or divergent thinking (e.g. imagine you have a brick/tin can/cardboard box – how many ways could you use it?) bilinguals regularly score higher i.e. they think of more uses than monolinguals. (Most tests do not measure this i.e. IQ measures convergent thinking when there is only one right answer). Bilinguals seem to think more freely, more elaborately and more creatively.

Curriculum advantages

  • Increased curriculum achievement : bilingual children do better at school; this may result from multiple factors e.g. higher self esteem, creative thinking, a wider worldview. Also possible if homework discussed with a parent in another language may lead to deeper understanding of content as opposed to reciting. NB The child needs two fairly well developed languages not just a passive knowledge before this is true. Studies have found this result in Canada, Finland, and Spain.
  • Bilinguals find it easier to learn a third language than monolinguals find it to learn a second language – two thirds of studies show this result, the other third could find no difference. It is not yet known why this should be, it could be down to higher confidence.

Cash advantages

  • Economic and employment. Value addedness of bilingualism. Studies show that bilinguals earn more on average in the US and more recently in the UK. As companies become more and more international there is a need for bilinguals in media, sales, marketing, customer services.
  • Although children may resist one language, by the time that they are young adults almost without exception they are extremely grateful to have two (or more) languages. The short term struggle is worth it in the long term.

There are three potential disadvantages of bilingualism

  1. Semi-lingualism – where a child has two underdeveloped languages. This is very rare. When a child goes to school he or she needs to know a language well enough to be able to think about and to learn the curriculum. If the school language is not the home language, but the home language is adequately developed, the child will learn to understand and speak the school language relatively quickly and already has the mental tools to think and understand (from the home language). Where neither language is well developed, this can mean that a child does not have the tools to understand or think about the curriculum. This probably occurs in the situation where a child is not getting enough language stimulation.
  2. Parental effort. It takes a good deal – this is particularly the case where one language is not a high status language. Children as young as three are aware of the difference in language statut.
  3. Identity : this is a complex area. Some outsiders feel that bilinguals cannot be good British or are split or even schizophrenic (famous David Blunkett speech). Bringing up a child talking French does not make them French. Some bilinguals feel that they have a hyphenated identity Irish-Canadian, but Jim Cummins (a famous bilingual researcher) says that he is both fully Irish and fully Canadian. Identity is something that is never stable – always shifting and includes lots of other factors, gender, ethnicity etc.

Overall the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. There is a view that says that monolinguals are actually deprived! But although two thirds of the world is bilingual or multilingual, the one third that is monolingual is far more powerful so this is not the dominant view.

Q: Re Semilingualism : if it is about a poor language environment and lack of interaction – not strictly speaking about being bilingual ?
A: True but having two languages may compound a poor language environment.

Q: I heard that parents who are not fluent in a language should not speak it. Is this correct?
A: Parents can be bad role models e.g. mother Welsh and father English – father uses limited Welsh to children who pick up a strong English accent and grammar errors and reproduce these at school in a Welsh class with negative results. Grammar will probably self correct if you have a good strong speaker also as a role model, but the accent may not be lost quite so easily. It is fine for the non-fluent speaker to use the language symbolically as a way of stressing how positively it is seen within the family. The other main issue if parents start mixing languages is that this tends to be in the direction of English rather than the other language. It is a question of judgement how good a speaker needs to be in order to be a good role model.

Q: What about consistency? I.e. one parent should always use one language ?
A: In the early stages it helps if the child hears the languages separately, whether this is one parent one language or one place one language or any other consistent system. If they are constantly mixed, it is difficult for the child to understand that they are separate. Later when the child knows that there are two distinct languages, this is much less important. Children may mix languages when with people that they know speak both and in fact the parents probably do so too. But it is interesting that after a certain temporary period, even if children continue to mix languages with people who understand both, they don’t do so with grand parents or others who only speak one language

Q: My child is now at nursery where he has experiences in English. Although he used to speak exclusively German to me, now when he comes home from nursery he wants to explain what he has done in English and may not even know the words in German. Should I pretend not to understand?
A: No, it is probably better to repeat what he has said back to him in German to give him the vocabulary and may be ask him a question in German that he can respond to in German if he wants. It is important not to punish children for speaking the wrong language.

Q: A related question “ if my children ask for help with their homework, although I speak French to them normally, I think I should do it in English, which is the language they study it in and not in French?
A: Actually it may help children a lot to discuss their homework in another language. This way they cannot simply repeat what they have read or heard, they need to rephrase it. This is probably very helpful as it means that they have to really understand and reprocess it.

Q: My children speak French when we are abroad but switch back to English when we get back home.
A: Even if a child has purely passive knowledge of a language i.e. can understand but can’t and won’t speak, it is worth persevering. In the right situation, it is possible to trigger speech and in a few weeks (literally) the child will be speaking fluently.

Comment: If a child learns a second language before the age of around 6 they will have a native or near native pronounciation. This is because of changes in an area of the brain called Brocants area at around that age. It is not yet clear whether a passive knowledge of a language is sufficient or whether a child needs to be speaking the language by this age to avoid having a foreign accent in that language.
The earlier a child learns a language the more likely it is that the child will use it in the long term.

Very young children acquire language – they do not learn it i.e. they do not have to make an effort to learn vocabulary or grammar rules. They are exposed to it and they soak it up and reproduce it.

Q: How much exposure to a minority language does a child need?
A: They can’t get too much. Research has shown that children retain and use minority languages if there is a domain where that language and only that language is spoken e.g. community, mosque, synagogue. You need to try to establish some form of reserved area of your life for that language. This can be getting together regularly with a group of friends who speak the same language, speaking a language always at home (this is difficult if not everyone speaks that language).

Q: What about when fathers are not supportive?
A: Some research shows that on average mothers have more influence on their children in terms of communication. Others have shown that mothers are more likely to do routine care tasks with children (meals, baths) and also do more of the discipline. Fathers tend to do nicer things – do less chores and have more fun. This may also influence the child. It is important that both parents are supportive of bilingualism.

Q: Many schools have a poor record in terms of encouraging bilingualism in their pupils, is there evidence of change? Are there examples where parents have influenced schools positively?

A: There are some examples e.g. from the US, but these have involved mainly middle class parents who have worked as a group. There are gradations of schools valuing languages from displaying them on the walls, some schools may provide second language support in the classroom. In the UK there is a new initiative to introduce languages into key stage 2 and it has been clarified that this will be all community languages and not just European ones.

Q: Should I let my child learn to read in English first and only then introduce reading in his or her second language?
A: The research is divided on this. There are casestudies whereby children have learnt to read and write in two languages simultaneously and this has worked well. However it is very clearly established that literacy transfers very easily between languages i.e. a child who has learnt to read in English will often be able to read another language without any additional teaching.This is true even if the alphabet is different. So pragmatically it may be simpler to allow the child to learn in one language and transfer across to another.

Comment: But it is very important that the children have good skills in English as well as another language.

Q: Why are so many professionals you meet convinced that bilingualism is impossible or not a good idea?
A: Many monolinguals feel intuitively that to be bilingual would mean that you are split – that you have two half filled language balloons in your brain, they suspect that bilinguals translate from one language into the other or a schizophrenic or their identity is muddled. None of these are true. Whenever a bilingual child has any sort of difficulty, professional will often suspect that bilingualism is the cause – whereas it is almost always the case that the difficulty has nothing to do with bilingualism at all.

Q: Is there any research into bilingualism and old age?
A: Yes. Bialystok has studied older people and found that bilinguals are less likely to have cognitive and linguistic problems in old age, they have less dementia.

Q: When I visit my family, my children hear a dialect of German and not high German. I have chosen to speak high German to them. Which should I choose?
A: This is a decision that only you can make, some communities are very keen to preserve the heritage language, others make decisions based on pragmatism and future employment opportunities. A personal view is that languages are not important and children are and you should choose what will be best for your child in the long run.