Understanding bilingualism in childhood
By Kelly Frances
Yan Padron,4, has traveled from his home in Cuba to visit his father in Seoul. He effortlessly switches from Spanish to Korean to accommodate whomever he is speaking to. Yan’s mother is Korean, and his father is Cuban.
“His first words were Korean”, explains his father, Orielvis. “He started speaking Spanish shortly after, when he and his mother moved to Cuba. He speaks Korean to his family and sometimes to his mother. He speaks one or the other when it makes sense. He is learning both, but he isn’t studying formally.”
Yan displays simultaneous bilingualism, which occurs when a child becomes bilingual by learning two languages before the age of two, and is consistently exposed to those languages up until the final stages of language development. Consequentially, both languages become “first languages,” though not necessarily with equal proficiency.
Simultaneous bilingualism differs from sequential bilingualism, in which a second tongue is learned as a foreign language. It is estimated that half of the world is functionally bilingual in two languages. In some communities in South America, Africa and Asia, there are “native bilingual communities”, where bilingualism is the norm.
In Korea, where the race to learn English is often costly and may span decades, bilingualism from infancy would be a distinct advantage, or, as homemaker Kim Byung-ok puts it, “every parent’s dream come true”. Kim is pregnant with her second child, and plans on seeking a British nanny to help rear her second child. In response to increasing demand, countries such as England market “bilingual nannies” to families who wish to introduce English during infancy.
Not everyone shares such enthusiasm for teaching a second language before the first is mastered.
Common concerns include the fear that the child will suffer handicaps in both languages, experience confusion, or be cognitively disadvantaged.
Experts are at odds regarding whether or not simultaneous bilingualism can hinder or potentially enhance development.
“Most scholars agree that there is a critical period for learning language. Simply put, the brains of children may have more receptivity in the area of the brain related to speech. This receptivity decreases as we age, especially after adolescence. Accordingly, our ability to learn the second language decreases too,” explains Park Jin-seng, psychiatrist and family therapist.
“I think the rigidity of oral muscles may also play a role”, he continued. “The habits of native language pronunciation are fixed in adults. This fixation may interrupt the ability of learnig a second language. “
Park acknowledges the topic is “highly controversial”, urging parents to attend to the natural inclinations of their child, and adding that it’s important to distinguish between interracial and monolingual families when forming priorities.
He added that monolingual children, or those studying a second language, should be allowed time to master their native tongue before tackling a second.
“In the case of children learning a second language at a young age, we should wait till the age of 3-4, or we risk influencing the normal process of language development”, he said. “The early education of second language should not disturb the inherent curiosity of the child. If parents push too much, they risk their child losing motivation to learn a second language altogether.”
Park concluded by encouraging parents to allow children to guide their own development.
“Of course, if our children can master two languages, they will be well equipped. But as you know, the ability of language is just one of many skills in life. We should not overemphasize it at the cost of other important skills.”
The writer is a guest columnist from Ontario, Canada, and is currently living in Seoul. She welcomes topic suggestions from readers.