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Are children who grow up bilingually confused, or is their development delayed?

No, bilingual children do not get confused when facing the task of acquiring two languages simultane­ous­ly. This is an issue which has been studied extensively over the last three decades, and the result is quite clear: simultaneous acquisition of two languages can be qualified as an instance of bilingual first language acquisition. This is to say that the de­velopment of each of the bilingual’s langu­ages proceeds in the same way and leads to the same kind of competence as that of monolin­guals.

Previously, it was believed that bilinguals might encounter dif­ficulties, at least initially, in separating the vocabularies and the grammars of the languag­es. It is true that bilinguals tend to mix languages, but this is a particular kind of language use (code-switching) among bilinguals, adults as well as children, which need not indicate that they are not able to keep the languages apart. In fact, code-switching is used more frequently by those who are most at ease and competent in both languages, and even very young children try to avoid mixing when talking to people who do not understand one of their languages. Most importantly, bilingual children have been shown to use as early as at around age two, language-specific constructions correctly. If, for example, different word orders are required in order to express the same idea, bilinguals use the correct order for each language, as in German ‘da geht er’, literally ‘there goes he’, as opposed to ‘there he goes’.  This language differentiation happens quite naturally, without tutor­ing or special training. It is sufficient for parents or other caretakers to address the children normally.

The question whether language acquisition in bilinguals proceeds more slowly than in monolinguals is not easy to answer. This is mainly due to the fact that a reliable yardstick against which to measure the pace of linguistic develop­ment is difficult to find. Also, there exists a considera­ble amount of varia­tion across individuals, among monolinguals as well as bilin­guals. One child at age two or three may easily be nine months ahead of another one. Thus, although some researchers report that bilin­guals tend to be­gin to speak late, i.e. after age two, the de­lays are well with­in the range of what counts as a normal rate of language development for mo­nolingual child­ren. We can therefore say that, although there may be an overall tend­ency for a slower acquisition rate in bilingual acqui­sition, bilinguals do not fall outside the norms established for monolin­gual acquisition.


My spouse speaks one language, and I speak another. Neither language is English. Will my child have difficulties in school if s/he has learned two languages other than English at home?

The human language acquisition capacity enables children to learn two and also three languages simul­taneously; their competence in each language does not differ substantially from that of monolinguals. This learning capacity does, however, change over their lifespan. As early as around age four, we observe effects of such changes. In other words, if a child starts learning a language after that age, the acquired grammatical knowledge may differ in some respects from the grammar of a monolingual native speaker. With later onset of exposure to a given language, these differences will be more marked. It is, of course, still possible to acquire the language, even at later ages, but it is increasingly unlikely that the child will acquire a complete native competence. Thus, if you want your child to acquire the knowledge and the skills of an English native speaker, you should make sure that s/he is given the opportunity to learn Eng­lish from early on, preferably starting before age four.

Let me add one point. In order to be able to acquire languages successfully, young children do not require special teaching or monitoring; they only need to be exposed to the language or the languages which they are supposed to learn. ‘Exposure’, however, means that they need to be directly addressed and that they have to interact in these languages. Merely overhearing conversations or watching tele­vision in different languages will not be enough. This is, of course, true for monolinguals as well as for multilinguals. But since children growing up in multilingual settings necessarily receive less exposure in each of their languages than monolinguals, if we count hours of daily contact in a language, it is even more important for multilinguals to be offered a linguistically rich environment by their parents and caretakers who should talk to them, read to them, and so forth.

I would like to teach my child to read. Should I only teach him/her to read in one language?

As a parent, you are playing an extremely important and vital role in helping your child become a good reader. Some important things to remember:

You will not be confusing your child by reading to them in two languages.

Research indicates that this is extremely beneficial for the child who is developing skills in two languages.

It is important for schools and teachers to acknowledge heritage languages in classrooms. This helps promote greater self confidence in children and helps them become better readers in both languages. There are many resources to help you develop language and literacy skills in two languages. Reading dual language books (books published in two languages) is a great way to develop literacy in both languages. There is also software that you can use to help your child read.

For more information check out the following websites: 

Current research demonstrates the importance of encouraging practitioners and teachers to view young immigrant children as emergent bilinguals who need guidance and support as they navigate their two language worlds (Chumak, 2012).

If you are looking for additional information on this topic check out the work done by world-renowned expert Professor Jim Cummins at the University of Toronto. Go to: