Letter to the Editor | Bilinguals’ initial delay ‘is only natural’

Dear Editor,

The title and take-home message of Tuesday’s news item “Bilingualism may cause language delays in children” may harmfully mislead parents into perpetuating old, but still sporadically encountered myths that childhood bilingualism is detrimental to linguistic and/or cognitive development, that exposing the child to more than one tongue may cause language deficits, or that for children already diagnosed with impairments two languages mean too much unnecessary pressure and effort.

The reality is that language impairments, if they do occur, are independent of bi- or multilingualism. Inversely, children diagnosed with Specific Language Impairment who regularly use two (or more) languages have actually repeatedly been shown to make significantly fewer errors in certain areas of both their languages compared with age-matched monolingual SLI peers.

Bilinguals’ initial delay in language production (concerning later development of some syntactic structures, lower scores in receptive vocabulary tests in
each tongue, and fewer items named in verbal fluency tasks) is only natural given the time constraints (the same amount of time that a monolingual child spends in one language, in the case of a bilingual has to be shared among two) and the so-called complementarity principle (bilinguals usually acquire and use their respective languages for different purposes, in different areas of life, and with different interlocutors). However, differences between the two groups are much less pronounced than most parents believe: for instance, the lexical repertoire of school-aged children speaking two languages is roughly only ten per cent lower than that of their unilingual peers, and has been found to only concern home- but not school-related vocabulary. And while bilinguals are slower in vocabulary recall and more likely to experience the ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon (unsurprising given the relatively lower input in each of the languages and the necessity to suppress the influence of the other tongue(s) in cases of lexical conflict), the differences are in the regime of milliseconds, thus again virtually negligible and imperceptible in daily functioning.

With time bilinguals will catch up (at least to a level where the abovementioned deficits can no longer be spotted in daily functioning), and overall the total lexical resources and linguistic repertoires of persons speaking more than one language are considerably larger than in monolinguals. The few minor inconveniences seem a price worth paying for the numerous and well-documented social, academic, professional and cognitive benefits of bilingualism.

It is also crucial to emphasise that mispronunciation of a word need not be indicative of a language delay, but may merely be a reflection of its low input frequency or non-target-like production by caretakers or peers in the first place. Non-native-like pronunciation of an odd word or two should not be a cause for concern, unless it follows a systematic pattern.

Michał B. Paradowski

The reader is an assistant professor at the Institute of Applied Linguistics, University of Warsaw, a teacher and translator trainer, and a consultant for television. He has been an invited speaker at over 100 scientific and language-teaching events in Europe, America, Africa and Asia, including numerous visits to Macau, Hong Kong, and mainland China. His recent books are ‘Teaching Languages off the Beaten Track’ (2014), ‘Productive Foreign Language Skills for an Intercultural World’ (2015), and ‘M/Other Tongues in Language Acquisition, Instruction, and Use’ (2017), where he dispels the myths and misconceptions surrounding the notions of bilingualism and bilingual education.

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