The Social Advantages of Exposure to Other Languages


Recent studies show that “multilingual exposure improves not only children’s cognitive skills but also their social abilities” (“The Superior Social Skills of Bilinguals”, The New York Times, March 11, 2016). Whilst I’m wary of sound bites that may mistakenly encourage us to think that people are ‘superior’ simply by virtue of speaking more than one language, there can be definite advantages that also serve as good reminders and sources of motivation for parents and children alike.

Firstly, researchers in developmental psychology found that early exposure to a multilingual environment can promote effective communication as children develop greater perspective-taking skills. And in a follow-up study, even babies as young as 14-16 months can be seen to develop these interpersonal skills as result of exposure to multilingual environments. The research adds to the benefits that have been witnessed by parents across the globe and shared in testimonies like this:

The benefits to multilingualism that we like in particular include the ability to see situations from multiple points of view (already at 2, our daughter knows there are multiple ways of saying the same thing), leading to tolerance, open-mindedness, empathy.
– Karolina from Poland and Oscar from Elsavdor are raising their 2 year-old, Natalia, in the US with Polish, English, and Spanish, whilst learning American Sign Language.

As Professor Katherine Kinsler points out in her New York Times article, “… the social advantage we have identified appears to emerge from merely being raised in an environment in which multiple languages are experienced, not from being bilingual per se. This is potentially good news for parents who are not bilingual themselves, yet who want their children to enjoy some of the benefits of multilingualism.” And in a similar sense, Dino Lingo Books and Dino Lingo, are also well suited to parents who are not bilingual themselves (or fully bilingual, like me), but hope their children can benefit from multilingual exposure.

by Philip Shigeo Brown

What Parents Want to Know about Bilingualism


It’s generally recognized that most people across the globe are bilingual or multilingual and use 2 or more languages or dialects in everyday life. And the diversity of bilinguals within multicultural societies continues to grow. Beyond sharing fascinating facts about how this came to be (Bilingualism’s Best Kept Secret), Prof. Grosjean addresses 11 of the most frequently asked questions by parents and carers (collated by Corey Heller, founder of Multilingual Living). Here they are below with bullet point summary answers (but please feel free to click on the link for the original, full article):

What parents want to know about bilingualism
(Also published in The Bilingual Family Newsletter, 2009, 26(4), 1-6.)

How can one tell if children are getting enough exposure to each language?

  • Since there is no good measure of ‘enough’, maximize and balance input, aiming for a daily basis especially for children to be able to use, not just understand, languages
  • Interaction with people is better than just watching TV or DVDs
  • Ensure there are monolingual situations for each language where children have to use the same language (and cannot code-switch)

Which is the “best” method for helping children become bilingual (e.g. one parent – one language, the minority language at home, etc.)?

  • Prof Grosjean prefers and recommends minority language at home: Although one of the parents has to speak their second (or third) language, and the language will need to be reinforced by other people to give it a strong base, the majority (community/school) language has less problem finding its place; the weaker language (the home language) will receive much more input than if only one parent uses it, and it can be easier for the child to associate one language at home, another outside.
  • However, each method has its pros and cons and the effectiveness will depend on the child, parents, local circumstances, etc.

Is it all right to change from one method to another or one language to another in the home?

  • Changes in circumstances may require changes in method but the genuine, communicative need for both languages is fundamental to ensure their continued use (not just a ‘need’ imposed by parents!)
  • If children are old enough, discussing changes in strategy with them can help transition

What does research say, in layman’s terms, about the benefits of bilingualism / multilingualism over monolingualism?

  • More recent studies suggest bilinguals outperform monolinguals in certain tasks, for example, involving selective control; they perform just as well with analysis of representations; and sometimes do less well in monolingual vocabulary tests (where their other language may be dominant)
  • Prof. Grosjean warns people to be wary of older studies due to lack of control factors

Is it all right to raise a child in a non-native language, even if parents don’t speak the language absolutely perfectly (but well enough) and they don’t have a perfect native accent (but it is good enough)?

  • Again, having a genuine need to use the languages is key, together with supporting factors, such as the amount and type of input (as mentioned above)

Are there specific golden rules that every family should follow about raising children in more than one language?

  • Although every family and situation is different, Prof. Grosjean first highlights the value of understanding the factors that promote additional language acquisition, emphazing ‘the need factor’, language input, the roles of the family, school and community, as well as attitudes towards the language, the culture, and bilingualism. Again, Prof. Grosjean points out the importance of monolingual situations to facilitate genuine communicative need.
  • Support for parents and children to understand what it means to be bi-/multilingual as well as bi-/multicultural is also invaluable and often key to ensuring the process is mostly a positive experience, despite the inevitable challenges

Is it worth it for a spouse to speak his/her language even if they are only with the child a little bit of the time?

  • Even if exposure is limited, some is better than none, and one never knows what role a language may play in the child’s future

How should one deal with more than two languages in the family and how can one add an additional language to an already bilingual household?

  • Once again, Prof. Grosjean stresses ‘the need factor’ and setting up monolingual situations for each language 

What will happen to the children’s bilingualism when they start going to school in the community language?

  • The community language will likely become the dominant language
  • Children may try to use it exclusively with their parents, especially from around 6 years old until their early teens, often so as not to feel ‘different’ 

What should be done when children have been diagnosed with a speech impediment and they are told that their bilingualism / multilingualism is the cause? Is it all right to go against what the speech therapist / school therapist may say and still speak a native language at home?

  • “Bilingualism researcher and speech therapist, Susanne Döpke, states clearly that bilingualism is not the cause of language delay and language disorders”
  • Moreover, “…discontinuing the home language is not going to improve the bilingual child’s abilities in the majority (school) language; on the contrary, it may have other prejudicial consequences” 

What about cultural issues such as bilingual children assimilating into the community while also retaining their connection to the parents’ cultures?

  • Being mindful of what it means to be bicultural and how that affects children’s sense of identity is important
  • Some children reject one language/cultural identity over the other, and a few reject both, but most seem to eventually accept both to varying degrees and, “…biculturals who are allowed to be who they are, and who accept their dual heritage, are invaluable members of society who bridge the gap between the cultures they belong to”


As parents, we not only find ourselves thinking about questions such as the ones above, but also need to focus on the day-to-day practicalities and longer term. Our earlier blog entry, How to Raise a Bilingual Child, covers a number of key points in brief, from starting as early as possible with a consistent language policy (e.g. One Parent One Language or Minority Language At Home) to understanding individual differences and development, the critical period, and what motivates you as well as your child.


Fortunately, whatever your situation these days, there is a wealth of resources and support online, as well as an increasing number of multicultural communities and grassroots movements. For example, Multilingual Living, offers an excellent advice from getting started and teaching at home to being a non-native and addressing common problems. And for me, trying to raise our kids tri-lingually/culturally and not sure where we may go in the world, one thing that particularly stands out about Dino Lingo is that it’s actually much more than a bilingual site due to all the multilingual options.

Authored by: Philip Shigeo Brown

More about Dino Lingo learning sets for bilingual children

Speaking Two Languages Strengthens the Mind

It has been already proven that speaking two languages delays dementia. A research team from Scotland provided further evidence to this fact by conducting another study with 835 subjects where they controlled the early childhood IQ. They measured the cognitive abilities of the participants when they were 11 and after they reach their 70’s. The findings indicated that whether subjects learned a second language early in their lives or during adulthood, those who speak 2 or more languages had stronger cognitive abilities. The study is published in the latest issue of Annals of Neurology. For more information, check out Sciencedaily

What to do when bilingual kids mix languages (code-switching, a.k.a. code-mixing)

What to do when bilingual kids mix languages (code-switching, a.k.a. code-mixing)

• Don’t worry if your child mixes languages—language mixing is a common (and typically short-lived) phase of bilingual development.

• Trust your child is not confused—she may not know (or be able to explain) that she’s using two languages, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that she has two linguistic systems.

• Understand a bit about how and why children mix when evaluating your child’s language use.

• Minority languages may need extra support, and frequent use of both languages together can make it difficult to keep an eye on the support for each language.

• Set realistic expectations for your young learner—there are no perfect bilinguals in the world, and remember that language learning is a lifelong process—it’s never done.

Source: King, K., & Mackey, A. (2007). The bilingual edge: Why, when, and how to teach your child a second language. New York: Collins  (p.184)

How to motivate children to learn a 2nd language (p.267)

how to motivate children to learn a second language


Bilingual Kids Do Not Mistake: Unique Language Sound Structure

According to Kansas University psychologist Michael Vivevitch, bilinguals do not confuse the languages they speak mostly because each language has a unique sound neighboring system. In other words, just like human DNA where A, T, G, C have an ideintifying order, the sounds that follow each other in Spanish and English are different. Thus, bilinguals can easily distinguish which word to use or which language they are spoken to.

This is What Michael Vivevitch wrote

“A corpus analysis of phonological word-forms shows that English words have few phonological neighbors that are Spanish
words. Concomitantly, Spanish words have few phonological neighbors that are English words. These observations appear to
undermine certain accounts of bilingual language processing, and have significant implications for the processing and
representation of word-forms in bilinguals.”

“The results of the present corpus analysis show, in several ways, that words in a foreign language do not “invade” the lexical neighborhoods of another language. That is, for the two languages examined here, there are few words in one language that are phonologically similar to words in the other language. This simple observation raises a number of important and fundamental questions about lexical retrieval and language processing in the bilingual. First, the minimal amount of phonological overlap between the two languages essentially creates two separate – or perhaps, easily separable – lexica. (Note that other lowlevel phonological information might further contribute to the separation of languages; see e.g., Ju & Luce,2004.) The D E FAC TO separation between languages based on their phonological characteristics raises a question about the need for explicit representational schemes, such as language tags (Green, 1998) or language nodes (Dijkstra & van Heuven, 1998), or other cognitive mechanisms (e.g., Bialystok, 2010) designed to keep the word-forms of one language separate from the wordforms of another language. If one considers the small number of words that might benefit from such measures, these approaches to language processing seem cognitively and computationally expensive (and seem increasingly expensive for the individual who knows a third, or fourth, etc. language).”


Language learning process of children

Language learning process of children 

Birth: Early crying, babies’ attempt to communicate

5 months: Cooing, making sounds like ga-ga, gu-gu

1st birthday: a few words like doggie, milk, dada

18 months~24 months: 2-word phrases such as eat now or baby cry

2 years~: Acquisition of  about 200 new words a month

2.5 years: 3-word sentences such as no want carrots

5 years: Understanding and correct production of grammar


Do Baby Signs Programs (Sign Language) Make Smarter Babies?

Baby Sign language does NOT make babies smarter

Do Baby Signs Programs (Sing Language) Make Smarter Babies? (p.51)

To investigate the question of whether baby signs programs help children acquire language earlier or advance their cognitive development, in 2003 researchers J. C. Johnston and colleagues examined seventeen recent studies of baby signing. Johnston found that the studies did not support the big claims made by the infancy industry, that baby signs help make babies smarter or acquire other languages sooner. Many of the studies they scrutinized only looked at a few children, had poor follow-up (they didn’t look at their language development for long enough periods of time), and little detail (for example, not enough information on how often the parents and children signed), and overall, the industry’s claims went much too far. What’s more, the researchers noted that “parents can be stressed by the challenges of meeting demands of work, caring for a young child, and other family and personal obligations, and experience guilt if they feel they are not doing everything recommended by infancy specialists and the infancy industry.”

Source: King, K., & Mackey, A. (2007). The bilingual edge: Why, when, and how to teach your child a second language. New York: Collins


Language and Young Children (Ages 0–2) : How to Teach Toddlers and Infants a Language


Creating Good Language Learning Environments for Very Young Children (Ages 0–2) (p. 63)

  1. • Direct lots of rich, meaningful speech toward your child from birth.
  2. • Encourage friends, relatives, babysitters, siblings, and other visitors to speak and play with your child in the second language.
  3. • Engage in interactions that pique your child’s interests—for example, by using attention-grabbing toys, picture cards, or other props while you use the language.
  4. • Build up positive associations by singing and dancing to silly songs, listening to music, and playing games in the language.
  5. • Read stories to your child. Interact both with the book and with your child (for example, by acting out the stories and using funny faces and voices). Keep this light, fun, and brief.
  6. • When you’re looking for child care, find someone who speaks the second language.
Source: King, K., & Mackey, A. (2007). The bilingual edge: Why, when, and how to teach your child a second language. New York: Collins


What to do when children reject to speak in the 2nd language (e.g. Spanish)

What to do when children reject to speak in the 2nd language (e.g. Spanish)

Cases that worked (from Bilingual Edge p. 244-245)

“• Anna (mother of Javier, age five): “We’ve had the most success using reverse psychology. Javier is super strong-willed and it’s actually helped at times to say to him something like ‘Spanish is only for grown-ups.’ Nothing makes him want to use it more than thinking he can’t.”

• Lucinda (stepmother of Matilda, age four): “Matilda went through phases of responding to us in English when we would use Portuguese with her. We just made a point of continuing in Portuguese. We didn’t switch to English, but we didn’t make a huge deal about it either and eventually the phases passed and she started using more Portuguese again.”

• Fabio (father of Lorenzo, age six, and Alessandro, age four): “I decided to turn speaking Italian into a game. The three of us took turns being the ‘English policeman’ each day. The policeman’s job was to fine whoever was caught speaking English. The penalty was ten cents into a jar. It made sticking with Italian more fun for everyone and really helped—at the end of the month we’d go out for pizza with our earnings.”

• Maria (mother of Samantha, age three): “When Sammy was little I would just pretend I didn’t understand English. She had to use French in order to get what she wanted. As she got older, she realized pretty fast that I understood English perfectly well. I don’t ignore her requests in English now, but ask her to say it in French in the same way most parents ask their kids to say please or thank you. I’ve explained to her that this is our special secret language that only the two of us know, so we want to make sure we practice it.”

• Cristina (mother of Jason, age nine, and Sandra, age six): “Once the kids got to be about four, we instituted a ‘beeping policy.’ Even though Spanish is my second language, my husband (who is from Venezuela) and I decided to make Spanish the only language of our house. Instead of nagging them, or saying, ‘Speak Spanish’ a hundred times a day, we ‘beep’ each other if we are caught speaking in English. The kids love to ‘beep’ us and shout ‘BEEP!’ if they catch me using English with my husband. It’s made a huge difference in keeping Spanish the only language of our house.””

Source: King, K., & Mackey, A. (2007). The bilingual edge: Why, when, and how to teach your child a second language. New York: Collins


Top Ten Reasons Why Speaking Two Languages Is so Cool

Top Ten Reasons Why Speaking Two Languages Is Cool

10. I can have private conversations in my second language.

9. When I told (friend, teacher, neighbor) that I speak two languages, s/he was thrilled/very impressed.

8. I can meet more people from around the world (list of potential places where your child can meet people who speak the second language).

7. Many athletes are bilingual, like Yao Ming, Roger Federer, and Maria Sharapova.

6. I can wear and read clothes that have the print of the second language.

5. Many of my favorite celebrities like Antonio Banderas, Jennifer Lopez, or Yo-Yo Ma speak two languages, or more!

4. I can make more friends (list the names of your child’s bilingual friends here).

3. After finishing school, I’ll be able to get an awesome job that pays more, like………

2. I can help other people communicate who don’t speak two languages.

1. I feel proud and good about myself.

Source: King, K., & Mackey, A. (2007). The bilingual edge: Why, when, and how to teach your child a second language. New York: Collins (p. 242-243)