As English has become a sort of global lingua franca, it is easy for English speakers to get by with just one language, and many English speakers assume that knowing just one language is the norm, with speaking two (being bilingual) or more well somehow exceptional.
In fact, the global norm is to speak two or even more languages. In many countries, including many European countries, children grow up speaking the official language of the country, a local dialect, and possibly one or several more languages too. Just as we are capable of listening to and appreciating more than one type of music, our brains are naturally able to manage more than one language.
While we can learn a new language at any age, it is very difficult to achieve true bilingualism unless we start in childhood. Today, with more bi- and multi-cultural families than ever before, many kids have the opportunity to grow up speaking two or more languages. Unfortunately, because this is falsely perceived to go against the norm, sometimes parents are advised to let them learn one language first, before tackling another. Children who are growing up bilingual can seem in the early stages of language acquisition to be lagging behind monolingual children, which can cause anxiety. It is true that they are likely to know fewer words in English at an early stage if they are learning two languages. However, they are likely to know more words overall. For example, if a child is growing up in a French and English-speaking environment, they might only know 250 words in English compared to a monolingual child’s 400, but they will know 500 in total. Typically, bilingual children have completely caught up by the time they start primary school and know the same number of words in each of their languages as other kids.
Apart from the obvious benefits of being able to communicate in more than one language, scientific research increasingly shows that there are many other benefits, too. Children who grow up bilingual seem to be less likely to develop dementia when they get old, or to develop it later. They display higher levels of social and intellectual flexibility and, because their brains are easily able to manage more than one language at the same time, they find it much easier to learn other languages, at every stage of life.
Parents who have the opportunity to raise their families in a bilingual environment should feel confident in doing so. It’s not that hard—ideally, each parent should speak to their child exclusively (or as close to exclusively as possible) in their mother tongue, while exposure to films, music, and books in both languages can play an important part, too.
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