Raising a child is difficult enough to merit thousands of books on parenting. However, raising a child in a language-intensive environment is even more confusing. Monolingual and bilingual households differ in that they expose their children to a different number of languages. A seemingly innocent difference like this, however, has serious implications on how the child develops, especially in terms of brain development.
When you hear the phrase, “Here is beautiful; there is not so beautiful;” as a native English speaker, you know when a phrase is correct and when it is not. Yet, most native speakers cannot explain why they know a specific mistake is grammatically wrong. Bilingual children, however, excel at seeking out and applying rules. The reason is that bilingual children are exposed to two sets of grammatical rules, which essentially taxes her rule-seeking skills twice as hard. This development spills over into other areas of life, which relate to language. For example, bilingual children notice rules of logic and math more quickly than do their nonlinguistic peers.
Duality of Cultures
Whether the parents of a bilingual child are from a culture different from that of the mainstream culture, a child learning two languages is implicitly learning two cultures. Because language and culture intertwine, a new language brings new ideas, morals, and thinking styles to s child’s brain. For example, renowned researchers of childhood bilingualism, Peter Homel, Michael Palij, and Doris Aaronson, state in their book “Childhood Bilingualism: Aspects of Linguistic, Cognitive, and Social Development” that a bilingual child has “advantages that a monolingual does not enjoy” and “a mental flexibility, superiority in concept formation, and a more diversified set of mental abilities.” They further state that these advantages come from their “wider experiences in two cultures.”
According to Erika Hoff, psychologist and author of “Childhood Bilingualism,” when a child learns multiple languages, it changes how that child uses her cognitive resources. For a monolingual person, the mere idea of switching on and off your native language might be difficult to imagine. However, bilingual children often switch their mental dialogue from one language to another. It is this switching ability, according to Erika Hoff, that enables bilingual children to improve their ability to direct their attention to a specific task. This could explain why bilingual children tend to perform better at tasks that require concentration and to dismiss extraneous information.
Because a key expectation parents have is for their child to perform well in school, it is important for parents to know that bilingual children and monolingual children develop their learning abilities at different speeds. Children learning two languages learn each language more slowly than monolingual children learn their native languages. It is easy to understand why -- children have a limited amount of time with which to dedicate to listening and reading language; if a child is bilingual, he will split that time between the two languages, which slows his learning speed. This often affects the academic performance and communication skills of bilingual children, which can cause stress in the family. In a sense, the average school is set up to go at a monolingual speed, which might outpace bilingual children.