Bilingual Upbringing Will Help - Not Hurt - Learning
by Dr. Marilyn Heins
Feb 6, 2000

Q: My newest grandson is being raised in a bilingual home in Europe. His father speaks English, his mother Italian, but they live in Germany and have a German nanny. The parents plan to each speak their own language to him so he will learn them both and I presume the nanny will speak German. I once heard that hearing two languages can cause stuttering. Does three languages make the problem worse?

A: What a lucky kid your grandchild is! It is enriching, not damaging, to hear several languages spoken during early childhood.

There are no data to support the old worry that children who are raised hearing two languages will get confused and not learn either language well - or will stutter. There is evidence that early exposure to more than one language actually facilitates language acquisition later in life.

Children exposed to two languages learn both languages and, further, learn to switch easily and smoothly from one language to the other.

Until a child raised in a bilingual home is about 2, he or she will mix the syntax of the two languages although generally will use only one word for a given object. Not to worry. Later the child will separate the languages and use them appropriately. If Mommy speaks Chinese and Daddy speaks English the child will have no difficulty at all speaking the appropriate language to the appropriate parent.

If you expose a young child to a second language the child will learn to speak that language without a trace of an accent. By contrast, those who learn a language after puberty often speak with an accent. It has been postulated that the brain loses its ability to perceive sound patterns, but we are realizing that the plasticity of the brain may be lifelong. So we may not yet have all the answers.

Although there are 3,000 to 5,000 languages spoken on this planet, the way each infant acquires its own language - the pattern of acquisition - is identical, as is the age at which language develops.

Language acquisition is unique to the human species, although chimpanzees can be taught to use sign language to a limited degree.

Babies come into the world with the ability to abstract language relationships so that an infinite number of sentences can be constructed. This is a truly amazing, uniquely human feat.

Linguists postulate a language acquisition device in the human brain enables the baby to not merely imitate what is heard but to abstract rules of language long before the baby is old enough to know what a rule is.

It takes much more than the process of simple imitation for a baby to learn language. For example, young children make predictable, universal grammatical mistakes as they are learning language, which are never found in adult speech. When toddlers use a word like "foots,'' they have incorporated the language rule that "s'' makes a plural though they have never heard the parents say "foots.''

The newborn is able to discriminate between sounds and is programmed to respond to the human voice. Language starts long before speech does. Even very young infants pay attention to speech and listen to the rhythm of speech.

Babies all begin to babble at about 3 months. And they babble the same sounds no matter what culture they are born into. Even totally deaf babies babble the same sounds. Babbling is innate; speech requires that the baby hear the spoken language.

Babies rapidly adapt their babbling to the rhythm and sounds of their native language. They learn the melody of their language before they learn the words.

Parents serve as the baby's first language coach. In bilingual households, each parent coaches the child in the language he or she speaks so the baby will learn the sounds, words and rules of both languages.

From what I can find in the literature, exposure to three languages - or even more - has no harmful effects on language acquisition.

Because we live on a planet so small an e-mail can go around the world in seconds, I think learning languages should be encouraged. High school is much too late to start teaching languages; every child should have the opportunity to learn another language in elementary school. And I don't mean just learning how to count to 10 in French. At least one subject should be taught in the new language.

If I was Dictator of Education in Arizona and had the power to do so, I would change elementary school education so that all English-speaking children are taught Spanish and all Spanish-speaking children are taught English. Children soak up language like sponges, and by the end of high school all children in the state would speak both English and Spanish well and would have a leg-up on getting exciting international jobs.

Marilyn Heins, a Tucson pediatrician, author, and educator answers questions about parenting, child rearing, and children's health. Address questions to Dr. Marilyn Heins, e-mail to Her book, "ParenTips for Effective, Enjoyable Parenting," is available at book stores.