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Raising Bilingual Readers

Bilingual speakers are present all over the world, in every social class and in all age groups. Being bilingual has the obvious advantage of being able to communicate with more people. A study from Northwestern University found that “Bilingualism profoundly affects the brain, yielding functional and structural changes in cortical regions dedicated to language processing and executive function” and go on to assert that bilingual speakers have enhanced memory and are better able to pay attention.

The next question is how to raise a bilingual child. Some parents might fear that young children exposed to more than one language will suffer “language confusion,” which might delay their speech development. As the relatively new science of bilingualism pushes back to the origins of speech and language, scientists are testing out the earliest differences between brains exposed to one language and brains exposed to two.

Researchers at the University of Washington used measures of electrical brain responses to compare monolingual infants who are raised in one language by their parents, to bilingual infants are exposed to two languages. They found that the monolingual infants at 6 months could discriminate between phonetic sounds, whether they were the language they used to hear or in another language not spoken in their homes. However, by 10 to 12 months, monolingual babies were no longer detecting sounds in the second language, only in the language they usually heard. So the research suggested that infants’ brain wires itself to understand one language and its sounds.

On the contrary, the bilingual infants followed a different developmental pace. At 6 to 9 months, they did not detect differences in phonetic sounds in either language, but when they were older between 10 to 12 months, they were able to discriminate sounds in both languages. In other words, bilingual babies demonstrated the variability in acquiring language where experience shapes the brain.


What does the research imply? Human beings have the innate abilities to make language learning more efficient. Interaction is crucial. Babies that are not interacting as much do not learn language nearly as effectively, even if they appear to be attending to caregivers.

According to Dr. Stephen D. Krashen, Professor Emeritus of Education, University of Southern California, his theories of second language acquisition emphasized on comprehensible input where reading for meaning or reading about things that matters to us is the cause of literate language development. In his book “Power of Reading” cited in page 147 “When second language acquirers read for pleasure, they can continue to improve in their second language without classes, without teachers, without study, and even without people to converse with.”

Bring Me a Book Hong Kong Smart Tips: Spending quality time with your children is very important for speech development. Picture books are the good source of literature providing the best comprehensible input to aid language acquisition. The cost effective way in language learning is through reading aloud with your children regularly. Discussing stories providing ample practice of the target language.


Percie Wong, Trainer of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong