Language Mixing in Children Growing Up Bilingual

Jan. 16, 2013 — Language mixing — using elements from two languages in the same sentence — is frequent among bilingual parents and could pose a challenge for vocabulary acquisition by one- and two-year-old children, according to a new study by Concordia University psychology professor Krista Byers-Heinlein. Those results are likely temporary, however, and are often counterbalanced by cognitive advantages afforded to children raised in a bilingual environment.


With immigration and international mobility on the rise, early exposure to two languages has become the norm for many children across Canada, particularly those raised by parents who themselves are bilingual.

How do these bilingual parents use their two languages when interacting with their young children? Until recently, little has been known about how often parents switch between languages when interacting with their toddlers, and whether such exposure to language mixing influences vocabulary size.

To find the answers, Byers-Heinlein, who is also director of the Concordia Infant Research Laboratory and a member of the Centre for Research in Human Development, collaborated with Dr. Janet Werker’s Infant Studies Centre in Vancouver. She recruited 181 bilingual parents who spoke English as well as another language, and examined how often and in what situations they mixed languages while speaking with their children. Each parent had a one- or two-year-old child being raised bilingually or trilingually, having heard English and one or two other languages regularly since birth.

Rather than being a rare phenomenon, the results showed that language mixing is common in interactions between bilingual parents and their children. Indeed, 90 per cent of parents reported mixing their languages in interactions with their children. Parents did not mix their languages haphazardly, however, but instead reported principled reasons for mixing. For example, they borrowed words from the other language when there was no adequate translation, when they were not sure of a word, and when the word was hard to pronounce. Parents also reported frequently borrowing words from one language when teaching new words to their children in the other. Thus, bilingual parents might use language mixing as a strategy to make sure their children learn words equally in both languages.

Byers-Heinlein then examined the vocabulary size of 168 children of parents who had responded to the study. All of the children were learning English, but their non-English language varied widely — from German to Japanese, French to Farsi. As such, she focused on children’s English vocabulary size, while statistically controlling for the words that children likely knew in their non-English language.

She found that exposure to parental language mixing predicted significantly smaller comprehension vocabularies (words understood) in the younger children, and marginally smaller production vocabularies (words spoken) in the older children.

Why is that? Byers-Heinlein explains that, “high rates of language mixing make it harder for children to categorize words they hear. That could lead to slower word learning and smaller vocabularies. It also seems that it’s more difficult to learn a word from a mixed-language sentence than from a single-language sentence.”

But that in no way means that children raised in a bilingual environment are at a disadvantage. Byers-Heinlein cautions that, “even if exposure to language mixing is initially challenging for vocabulary acquisition, it likely has benefits over the long term.”

“Studies comparing monolingual and bilingual infants have shown that bilinguals are more adept at switching between strategies and are more able to learn two rules at the same time,” she explains. “Infants exposed to frequent language mixing could develop specific strategies for coping with this type of input. That could lead to cognitive advantages that would outweigh any initial difficulties brought about by language mixing.”

Byers-Heinlein is now undertaking new research with French-English bilinguals in Montreal to examine whether these findings hold in other bilingual communities, and when children’s vocabularies are assessed in both of their languages.


Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided byConcordia University.

Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above.


Concordia University (2013, January 16). Language mixing in children growing up bilingual. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 25, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130116123641.htm
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Bilingualism ‘Can Increase Mental Agility’

ScienceDaily (Aug. 3, 2012) — Bilingual children outperform children who speak only one language in problem-solving skills and creative thinking, according to research led at the University of Strathclyde.

(Credits: Marzanna Syncerz from  Fotolia.com )


A study of primary school pupils who spoke English or Italian- half of whom also spoke Gaelic or Sardinian- found that the bilingual children were significantly more successful in the tasks set for them. The Gaelic-speaking children were, in turn, more successful than the Sardinian speakers.

The differences were linked to the mental alertness required to switch between languages, which could develop skills useful in other types of thinking. The further advantage for Gaelic-speaking children may have been due to the formal teaching of the language and its extensive literature.

In contrast, Sardinian is not widely taught in schools on the Italian island and has a largely oral tradition, which means there is currently no standardised form of the language.

Dr Fraser Lauchlan, an Honorary Lecturer at the University of Strathclyde’s School of Psychological Sciences & Health, led the research. It was conducted with colleagues at the University of Cagliari in Sardinia, where he is a Visiting Professor.

Dr Lauchlan said: “Bilingualism is now largely seen as being beneficial to children but there remains a view that it can be confusing, and so potentially detrimental to them.

“Our study has found that it can have demonstrable benefits, not only in language but in arithmetic, problem solving and enabling children to think creatively. We also assessed the children’s vocabulary, not so much for their knowledge of words as their understanding of them. Again, there was a marked difference in the level of detail and richness in description from the bilingual pupils.

“We also found they had an aptitude for selective attention- the ability to identify and focus on information which is important, while filtering out what is not- which could come from the ‘code-switching’ of thinking in two different languages.”

In the study, a total of 121 children in Scotland and Sardinia- 62 of them bilingual- were set tasks in which they were asked to reproduce patterns of coloured blocks, to repeat orally a series of numbers, to give clear definitions of words and to resolve mentally a set of arithmetic problems. The tasks were all set in English or Italian and the children taking part were aged around nine.

During the research, Dr Lauchlan’s post at the University of Cagliari was funded by the Sardinian Regional Government (Regione Autonoma della Sardegna).

 

Link:

http://www.alphagalileo.org/ViewItem.aspx?ItemId=122967&CultureCode=en

Journal Reference:

  1. F. Lauchlan, M. Parisi, R. Fadda. Bilingualism in Sardinia and Scotland: Exploring the cognitive benefits of speaking a ‘minority’ language. International Journal of Bilingualism, 2012; DOI: 10.1177/1367006911429622

Citation:

University of Strathclyde (2012, August 3). Bilingualism ‘can increase mental agility’. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 5, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2012/08/120803082915.htm