bilingual

Young bilingual children can struggle to cope learning two languages, research finds

by Ray Clancy on February 23, 2018

Being bilingual is regarded as a great asset and one that keep the brain active, but new research has found that some young children may need help to cope with learning two languages at once.

But scientists have made a major breakthrough in the assessment of language development among bilingual families and in the identification of those children who require extra support to improve their language skills.

Bilingual

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During a three-year study involving nine British universities researchers interviewed almost 400 families with two-year-old children learning English and another of 13 common additional languages.

They were able to demonstrate for the first time that those learning English and a phonetically or grammatically close language, such as Dutch or German, knew more words in their other language than those learning more distant languages such as Mandarin or Greek.

The team used the findings to create and test the first toolkit for health professionals to accurately assess how bilingual children’s language skills are developing.

‘A large number of children in the UK grow up with two or more languages, but growing up bilingual also usually means these children acquire each language at a slower pace than monolingual peers,’ explained Dr Andrea Krott, of the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology.

‘Since up to 15% of children have delayed language acquisition due to developmental disorders, it is important to be able to distinguish whether the slow language development of a bilingual child is due to them being bilingual or is the result of a developmental impairment,’ she said.

According to project leader Dr Caroline Floccia, associate professor in psychology at the University of Plymouth, while language is a foundation for harmonious development in a child and being bilingual is now a norm across the world, in the majority of cases, their development in each language is slightly delayed compared to that of monolingual children.

She pointed out that this can have knock-on effects both for them and when they get to school for their peers. ‘We are proposing the first practical solution to the problems faced by bilingual children, because the earlier we identify and tackle these potential issues, the more likely a positive outcome for the children and their prospects,’ she said.

The test includes a list of familiar English words that parents tick off if their child recognises or can say them, and a similar list of familiar words in their additional language. It also features a questionnaire that assesses the proportion of time a child spends engaged in an English speaking setting compared with their additional language.

This will allow practitioners to identify bilingual toddlers who may need additional support with their language development which has not been possible until now.

Kim Plunkett, professor of cognitive science at the University of Oxford, explained that the work also provides researchers in the field of bilingual development with important new insights into the development of the bilingual mind.

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