Growing up, I was fluent in Cantonese and I want my daughter Madi to be fluent in Cantonese. I once heard from a friend that learning two languages may negatively affect speech. Is my friend right, can learning two languages at the same time increase the risk of speech problems or speech delay?
Will learning 2 languages at the same time impact my child’s cognitive abilities?
Bilingualism is the ability for a person to speak two (or more) languages. Historical medical evidence suggested that learning 2 languages at the same time in childhood had a negative impact on intelligence. This early evidence implied that children whom were raised bilingually had worse cognitive abilities later in life. It also suggested that bilingual children were less intelligent than monolingual children.
The good news is that this early theory has been disproven. More recent studies have shown the opposite. Learning 2 languages at the same time, and children who learn more than one language growing up, actually have enhanced cognitive abilities later in life.
Will my child get confused with the languages or have speech problems?
The medical evidence largely suggests that the answer to this question is no! Learning 2 languages at the same time has not been shown to cause speech delay or speech problems. Bilingual children as young as preschool age are able to differentiate between two languages. They also know which contexts and how to use each language.
Bilingual children have a tendency to mix up languages and vocabulary early in life, but this typically resolves by 36 months old. At 36 months old, children become fluent bilingually.
Will my bilingual child have worse vocabulary skills?
Current medical literature has found there is no increase in speech problems, which includes no delay in vocabulary development for bilingual children.
Most bilingual children do not acquire both languages at the same time, in the same way, and with the same skills. It is very normal for a bilingual child to be stronger in one language compared to the other. This does not suggest speech delay or speech problems.
Can my child “lose” a language?
For a child to maintain language skills, they need to have frequent exposure to the language. As long as the second language is spoken regularly (ie: either at school or in the home) they will likely not lose their language skills.
Overall the evidence suggests that learning a second language at an early age does not impair your child’s cognitive abilities, but rather enhances them!
This post was co-authored by Suzanne Black, MD, BSc and Stephanie Liu, MD, MSc, CCFP, BHSc.
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