WEBINAR: Research shows that infants and toddlers aren’t confused by simultaneously learning more than one language. Experts discuss how it works.

April is National Bilingual/Multilingual Learner Advocacy Month, and this year’s theme is Celebrating Diversity. Unfortunately, early learning institutions that should be working to promote that theme in the United States have a long way to go in understanding the facts and benefits of early, multiple language acquisition, say linguists and early childhood education experts.

Author Julienne Gage is an UnidosUS consultant and regular contributor to ProgressReport.co.

A 2022 study conducted by UnidosUS’s Latino Infant Initiative showed that some speech therapists might advise Latino families not to “confuse” their children by speaking Spanish to them. But experts in an UnidosUS webinar titled Crucial Conversations: Discussing Early Dual Language Development with Speech/Language Therapists noted that no scientific evidence supports this assumption. Instead, extensive evidence demonstrates that a family’s home language is a valuable resource.

Funded by a grant from the Pritzker Children’s Initiative, the Latino Infant Initiative is a nationwide policy and advocacy network developed in collaboration with Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors. The initiative will create and develop a network to guide the development of a national policy agenda and enable programs that provide high-quality services to Latino infants more readily.

“Our teachers and our ECI (Early Childhood Intervention) specialists and our policymakers are ignoring the decades of research that proves that being exposed to more than one language at an early age actually improves brain functionality, and those who speak more than one language at an early age become more proficient in English than their monolingual English-speaking counterparts later on in life,” said panelist Dr. M. Teresa Granillo, who holds a Ph.D. in social work and psychology. She is an UnidosUS board member and the chief executive officer of the UnidosUS Affiliate AVANCE Inc. in San Antonio, Texas, one of the institutions that provided parents for the study through its parent-education program.

“Language discrimination is pervasive in our country,” said Granillo, noting that 31 states have declared English their official language, and predominately Latino states like Arizona are banning Spanish in schools. “It’s not surprising and yet still incredibly disheartening.”

To combat this, the AVANCE program promotes school readiness through positive parent-child interaction and the creation of toys from household products to increase that engagement. The program takes place in early childhood classrooms at the AVANCE facilities but also includes a home visiting component to observe how the information provided is being implemented and provide further support as needed.

In a survey of its own, AVANCE found that 98% of the parents in the program reported feeling more empowered, 91% reported more positive parent-child interactions, 61% reported increases in social connectedness, meaning that parents feel they have a place they belong, and 70% reported an increase in school readiness knowledge. Those numbers suggest parents will have more agency in demanding what they need from speech therapists, educators, and policymakers.

“We truly believe that our children and families are going to be the ones that transform all of the communities that we live in,” said Granillo.

Science Shows No Confusion in Multilingual Learning

Scientific evidence collected over the past four decades demonstrates that infant brains are capable of learning multiple languages at the same time and that the process really takes off just before birth, said panelist Dr. Fred Genesee, a professor emeritus in the psychology department at McGill University in the largely francophone city of Montreal. Genesee, who is considered a world leader in this research, noted that a 2017 consensus study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine showed that the brains of infants and toddlers are optimally plastic and that learning more than one language can happen successfully, without formal instruction.

“Children have the neurocognitive capacity to learn more than one language, they are not confused by dual language input, and their acquisition of English is not diminished,” Genesee explained, noting that prenatal infants can actually hear the rhythmic patterns of the mother’s voice before they are born.

He also noted that children begin differentiating or segmenting words around seven months, whether they are monolingual, bilingual, or multilingual, and that they acquire the grammar for each language and avoid grammatical errors for each language as they code-switch.

“There’s no drawback,” Genesee explained. “Rather than speaking to confusion and incompetence, code-mixing actually speaks to children’s ability and competence to manage the two languages.”

Genesee says children code-switch because they are still acquiring the languages, so if they don’t have the word yet for one, they’ll become resourceful by inserting a word they know in another.

“They’re using their knowledge of two languages in order to express themselves fully,” he said.

So why did it take so long for scientists to pull this research together? Genesee says it used to be hard to elicit interest from other psycholinguistics or linguists because they were so focused on monolingual children.

“What people started to realize is that understanding monolingual children only tells us part of the story,” said Genesee.

But becoming fully bilingual or multilingual still takes a certain set of circumstances. The best scenario is for children to receive the same amount and quality of exposure in each language they are learning. This means to be bilingual, they need 50/50 exposure, but a rate of 40/60 exposure leads to strong proficiency. The exposure must also be continuous, so interruptions to that exposure can cause some delays. Still, children’s vocabulary will also be based on the context in which they are exposed to each language. In other words, these delays do not reflect a learning disability.

But Genesee says time is of the essence in giving children strong exposure to their home language.

“Children are usually more proficient in the societally dominant language over the long run because it has socio-cultural status,” he said. “That’s why it’s very important for parents to resist moving towards the dominant societal language too early because once that language takes hold, it’s very hard to get children to show interest in the heritage language.”

Disseminating the Data

UnidosUS hopes disseminating research like this will create an early childhood education system that supports and celebrates the rich cultural and linguistic identities of an increasingly diverse American society.

“In our view, all ECE systems, settings, and services should be founded upon the recognition that a family’s home language is a resource – both for parents and for children,” Stechuk told ProgressReport.co.

That, in turn, can lead to greater social and political tolerance, not to mention more opportunities in the world’s multilingual market.

Granillo noted that one of the best ways to do this is to increase the number of bilingual and multilingual ECI specialists providing services to Latino families and ensure those specialists have access to studies like these.

“Even if somebody comes in as an ECI specialist and doesn’t have the plethora of research knowledge, at the agency level, we can do some work around educating staff,” she said.

UnidosUS’s Latino Infant Initiative is striving to be a resource for that kind of knowledge sharing.

“It is our hope at UnidosUS that the day comes when no children or families in the U.S. are asked to set aside their home language in favor of English,” said UnidosUS Director of Early Childhood Education Initiatives Robert Stechuk. “UnidosUS advocates for a future in which diverse languages and multilingual development are regarded as beneficial and desirable.”

–Author Julienne Gage is a former UnidosUS Senior Web Content Manager who now serves the organization as a consultant.

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(This was first posted to the Child Care Aware of America blog, Early Directions.) By Lynette M. Fraga, PH.D. I recently spoke with NCLR about their perspective on child care and […]