Saturday, January 21, 2006

bilingualism and children

Children are basically lucky if they are able to truly participate in two different languages before they are about three. Making them bilingual in this sense means truly having them function in a language environment; just playing a few movies for them will entertain them, but won't really achieve the effect that I'm talking about here.

Monolingual children, on the other hand, face a certain problem. Our brains, in their ruthless quest for efficiency, begin to fuse concepts and language. Thus, if you're monolingual, the word "tree" becomes part of the concept that includes what it looks like, how big it is, what it does, where you see it, etc....If you use two languages, you tend to keep the language aspect separate (this is my theory anyway), because you'll become acutely aware that the language is entirely cultural and separate from the conceptual aspects of the thing. And, that different languages apply meanings to words differently, have different semantic spacing, etc.

This separation is what makes it easier for early bilinguals to learn third and fourth languages later...and this alone is a big advantage for the child. He/she will forever be more flexible when it comes to picking up languages.

The early bilingual takes longer to start speaking's as if he/she is looking around, putting all the pieces together...trying to make sure it's right...but generally, there is no other disadvantage...and even that small delay is of very little consequence, since, as a child, you get most of what you want without language anyway.

The early bilingual does have an interesting problem, though. Say one's parents speak L1 in the home, but one's friends speak L2 in the schoolyard and the teacher also uses L2. This early bilingual may not know L2 words for such things as sink, bed, pajamas; he/she may not know L1 words for blackboard, etc. There will be vocabulary gaps. But these are minor. A much bigger problem is the simple perception that the parents are not complete participants in the surrounding society; this sometimes results in the child translating for the parents, even having some power over the parents; but this is not language-related, and is only true in some cases anyway. From a language point of view, the early bilingual is at an advantage, forever, having acquired two languages at an ideal time, and having a thorough mastery of each.



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