The benefits of learning more than one language

Dave Barry, Pulitzer Prize winning American author and columnist, stated in 1991 that: “Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages”.

Behind Mr. Barry’s satire is a common yet hidden thought among many Americans; “Why bother to learn another language when our economy is the drive of the world and English is the most used language in economic and commercial transactions across the globe?.”

It is hard to know the exact number of people in the world who have an ability to speak more than one language, as there are no reliable global studies. But in 2012, a Eurobarometer survey established that just over half of Europeans (54%) are bilingual, and other studies hypothesize that more than half of the world population uses two or more languages every day. The pervasive presence of bilingualism shows that humans can learn two languages without apparent difficulty.

However, in the United States, bilingualism is often associated with low socioeconomic status, as can be appreciated by the fact that legislation referring to bilingual education used to be included in a Federal program for disadvantaged students. But interest in other languages and cultures is emerging. For some people, interested arose after major events that presented immediate and direct threats to the country’s future[1]. For others, the interest arose hand in hand with the increase of globalization where interactions between countries are closer than ever and they are not only limited to trade, but to politics, to social issues, to scientific collaborations, to music, culture, cuisine.

The ability of a citizenry to speak multiple languages provides a comparative advantage in our globalizing world.  This is because learning a new language is not only a means to improving communication, but more importantly it is a way to promote global understanding. In order to keep its global competitiveness, the United States should raise more educated and multilingual children.



In an interconnected and rapidly changing world, many believe that America’s prosperity and economic strength depends on its students mastering a language other than English.  Consequently, the government, both state and federal, are paving the way to get a multilingual workforce which will enhance their competitiveness in the future. One of the most well-known examples is the 1 Million Strong initiative, endorsed by the US and Chinese governments, whose goal is to expand the number of US students studying Mandarin to 1 million by 2020.  Additionally, some states are now investing heavily in dual immersion programs[2] with one major purpose: to increase their multilingual workforce so to attract new businesses to their states. New York is currently developing 40 new language-immersion programs in its school system. Montana, Delaware, Oregon, Washington, California, Texas and Utah are investing heavily in dual immersion programs. In the case of Utah, its Governor, Gary Herbert, set a target in 2010 for the development of 100 programs in intensive dual-language immersion programs serving 25,000 students by 2015. Utah met that goal two years ago, and the brisk pace continues with the launch of additional programs.

It is clear that there is a growing understanding that multilingualism is a key to future success. Last December 14, 2015, the Senate Education Committee favorably reported Senate Bill No. 3279 that establishes the State Seal of Biliteracy, a recognition for high school graduates who have attained a high level of proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing in one or more world languages in addition to English. The purposes of the State seal are to: encourage students to study languages and promote foreign language instruction in public schools; certify attainment of biliteracy; provide employers with a method of identifying people with language skills; provide colleges and universities with a method to recognize and award academic credits to applicants seeking admission; prepare students with 21st century skills; and affirm the value of diversity and honor multiple cultures.

One month later, the New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, signed the State Seal of Biliteracy into law. New Jersey is now the 14th state to adopt it, and it is under consideration in a half-dozen more states.


In most school systems, foreign language is taken in high school, with many schools requiring one to three years of foreign language in order to graduate. In some school systems, foreign language is also taught during middle school, and recently, many elementary schools have begun teaching foreign languages as well. While this certainly signifies progress, there is much more to be done. According to the scientific community, second language acquisition should start much earlier.

Almost all human beings acquire a language (and sometimes more than one), to the level of native competency, before age 5. That is because we are all born with an innate biological ability for understanding the principles of organization common to all languages. Furthermore, according to research performed at the University of Washington, language has a critical period of learning. Babies and children are linguistic geniuses until they turn 7 where there is a systematic decline. The graph shown below is indisputable by scientists but there is no common explanation of this phenomena.

Relationship between age of learning of a second language and language skills

bilngual children

 Source: Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences at the University of Washington



  1. Better job opportunities

We have to stop thinking that speaking a foreign language is a nice-to-have rather than a must-have asset.

We live in a competitive world where competition for jobs is increasingly fierce. Not only that, the world is more interconnected than ever and therefore, learning languages is crucial. In fact it’s vital. It is no longer an advantage for a job seeker to speak just one non-native language. Rather, it now could be a drawback for a job seeker to only speak one language. Here there are some eye opening facts:

  • At the end of 2013, CNN Money published that the hottest job skill is being fluent in a foreign language.
  • The Department of Labor estimates a 42% increase in jobs for translators and interpreters between 2010 and 2020.
  • According to, employers may pay between 5-20% more than the base rate to hires with language skills
  • America’s $15-billion, high-tech STEM[3] industry depends on languages to reach foreign markets worth $1.5 trillion.

In the public sector, more than one quarter of the “State Department’s language-designated positions” could not be filled with fully qualified personnel in 2012. Similarly, only 28% of language designated positions in the Department of Defense were filled with personnel who met the proficiency level requirements. U.S. Army soldiers can earn up to $1,000 extra per month by demonstrating proficiency in multiple languages

In the private sector, companies targeting global audiences are seeking bilingual employees to broaden their reach. In New Jersey in particular, there is an increasing demand from employers for candidates who speak world languages. In 2014, jobs for bilingual workers represented at least 1 in 5 online job postings at many of New Jersey’s top employers[4].  New Jersey’s key industries (including Finance and Insurance, Health Care and Social Assistance, and Educational Services) accounted for 3,552 online job postings for bilingual candidates in 2014. Finally, from 2010 to 2014, industries that require high levels of service and communication also show increased demand for bilingual job candidates.

In summary, learning a foreign language makes students more marketable, opens the door for higher pay, and prepares them to join the global workforce.

  1. More global understanding

“To have another language is to possess a second soul” – Charlemagne

Thomas Jefferson is probably one of the best examples of a multilingual American. “I read Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, and English of course, with something of its radix the Anglo-Saxon.” In addition to the languages he lists, there is some evidence that Jefferson was attempting German. The third president of United States knew the importance to learn other languages and cultures for political reasons.

Language learning is not only a means of improved communication, but more importantly it plays a key role in promoting global understanding and respecting cultural differences.  Language exposes students to another culture, sparking curiosity, empathy and understanding. And these qualities prepare students to interact with people of all ethnicities and backgrounds.

Learning a language is a double win. As brilliant translator Michael Hofmann explains well, “to speak a single language is to be enclosed in one cultural possibility – to be preordained to live in the linguistic and cultural cage into which you are born. If you don’t have another language, you are condemned to occupy the same positions, the same phrases all your life,” he wrote. “It’s harder to outwit yourself, harder to doubt yourself in just one language. It’s harder to play.” To acquire another language is to open yourself up to the world and to increase vastly your employability.

  1. Better cognitive abilities

On the classic TV show “I Love Lucy,” Ricky Ricardo was known for switching into rapid-fire Spanish whenever he was upset, despite the fact Lucy had no idea what her Cuban husband was saying. These scenes were comedy gold, but they also provided a relatable portrayal of the linguistic phenomenon of code-switching.

Code-switching requires a great brain effort. It means that the brain has to discriminate selectively one language as you speak the other, when it is known that both languages are active all the time. It requires a great amount of processing functions in our brains.

There is enough experimental evidence to state that children mastering in more than one language face higher brain processing demands that lead to an increase in brain activity. This increase improves their “brain’s executive function”, the system we use for problem solving, planning, flexible switching, focusing, multi-tasking, inhibitory control, etc. This means that children with a high command of a second language improve their ability to adjust to changes in demands or priorities and switch between goals, increase memory and concentration skills, among others.

Metalinguistic ability is also improved though the acquisition of a second language. This ability allows children to see through the meaning of language to its underlying structure. With metalinguistic ability, children can analyze linguistic representations to extract general grammatical rules and state them explicitly, and control attention to different aspects of a sentence or a word such as its form or its meaning. Of the different metalinguistic abilities, phonological awareness has received most attention. Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate linguistic sounds separate from their meanings and has been shown to have a significant contribution to children learning to read.

People who speak two languages have also been shown to have more efficient monitoring systems. According to a study performed by the University of Maryland in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania and Barcelona, monolinguals and bilinguals respond similarly when the brain’s monitoring system is not taxed, but in conditions requiring high monitoring demands, bilinguals were faster. Bilingual people also outperform monolingual people in spatial working memory tasks.

Studies indicates too that early exposure (before the age of 3) to different languages continues to influence neural processing later in life even after the language is no longer used. Another study by Susan E. Carey, Harvard University, shows that better cognitive development is gained as early as in 7 month old bilingual infants.

Studies also indicate a relationship between language study and basic skills development, including listening and reading. Moreover, there is a correlation between years of language study and SAT scores. And not just on the verbal section. On average, students with four years of foreign language study outscored other students by more than 100 points on the verbal and math sections.

  1. Bilingual people are healthier

We all know that taking part in stimulating physical or mental activity can help maintain cognitive function. It turns out that learning a second language has long lasting cognitive benefits even if it is learnt later in life. It promotes the maintenance of white matter[5] integrity and increases the grey matter[6]. In fact, the higher command in a second language, the better for the brain; the effects of long-life bilingualism on neural circuitry have been shown to promote cognitive reserve[7] in elderly people. As a result, elderly bilinguals outperform monolinguals in executive control tasks.

Furthermore, the ability to speak more than one language helps to delay behavioral symptoms associated with neurodegenerative disorders such as dementia. In particular, the estimated age of onset of Alzheimer’s and the age of the first medical appointment related to symptoms associated with dementia are about 4–5 years later in proficient bilinguals than in monolinguals. This is not to say that mastering at a second language protects against the development of neurodegenerative diseases. Rather, the symptoms associated with such diseases may be delayed in people able to speak more than one language because of the presence of greater cognitive reserve caused by the bilingual experience.

A newer study published by the American Heart Association revealed the people who speak two or more languages are twice as likely to have normal cognition after strokes as those who speak only one.



Language competencies are increasingly important. In this time of globalization, language learning is central to politics, economics, history, and most obviously education.

Marty Abbott, the executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, says the U.S. is still far behind other developed countries in producing a multilingual workforce, due to “the Anglophone factor and Americans believing that English is good enough to get along.” However, more and more public institutions, including State and Federal Governments, are acting in response to this interconnected and rapidly changing world by investing in dual immersion programs. They know that competition is not local any more, and in order to compete globally, the U.S. needs a globally prepared workforce.  Moreover, it´s not only about economy. America’s language deficit limits the nation’s ability to coordinate with countries on trade, development, disaster relief, global security, and beyond.

Regarding New Jersey, its demand for bilingual talent is on the rise due to the increasing need to communicate with a diverse customer base, and with operations and competitors overseas.

But learning a second language provides far more than professional opportunities. It develops better social and communicative skills and a deeper knowledge of the world.

Furthermore learning a second language is mental exercise. And there is sufficient experimental evidence supporting the notion that bilingualism/learning a second language improves cognitive abilities beyond language processing, especially on those involved in executive control, outperforming monolinguals in a variety of tasks such as problem solving, planning, flexible switching, focusing, multi-tasking, and inhibitory control. This boost in executive control abilities, which affect cognitive development as early as 7 months-old, continues throughout the life span, possibly enhancing cognitive reserve in the elderly delaying the onset of diseases like dementia and helping better recovery from strokes.



The Benefits of Second Language Study

Bilingual. F François Grosjean. Harvard University Press, 2010.

How does the bilingual experience sculpt the brain? Albert Costa and Núria Sebastián-Gallés. Center for Brain and Cognition, Department of Technology, Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona, Spain.

The bilingual advantage: Conflict monitoring, cognitive control, and garden-path recovery

Susan Teubner-Rhodes, Alan Mishler, Ryan Corbett and Jared Novick. University of Maryland

Llorenç Barrachina, Monica SanzTorrent. University of Barcelona

John Trueswell, University of Pennsylvania

-SENATE, No. 3279


-Language Diversity & The Workforce. The Growing Need for Bilingual Workers in New Jersey’s Economy

-Putting the FL in STEM: the Link Between Foreign Languages and the STEM Fields– Dr. Bill Rivers is the Executive Director for the Joint National Committee for Languages – National Council for Language and International Studies, and a leader in U.S. language policy development.

-Innate Ability for Language Acquisition

-The linguistic genius of babies


-Social cogniticion in the early years. Andre N. Meltozoff. Life Center. University of Washington.

-The Development of Language: A Critical Period in Humans

-Why do we continue to isolate ourselves by only speaking English?

To speak another language isn’t just cultured, it’s a blow against stupidity. Michael Hofmann

-Languages in a Global World. Learning for Better Cultural Understanding

Cognitive gains in 7-month-old bilingual infants

-The 100,000 Strong Foundation

-The Economic Imperative of Bilingual Education

-The hottest job skill is…  Fluency in a foreign language. CNN Money

-Government has foreign language deficit. The Washington Post.

-5 ways bilingualism can enhance your career

-Bilingual brain better protected against a stroke

-Europeans and their languages

-Speaking multiple languages can influence children’s emotional development

-Does being bilingual make you smarter?

-Bilingual brain better protected against a stroke

-Lifelong bilingualism maintains white matter integrity in older adults.

-Bilingual toddlers better at solving certain problems

-People who speak two languages have more efficient brains, study says


[1] The events of September 11, 2001 compelled the federal government to reflect on the expertise of its personnel and to focus attention on the need for more and better language skills, particularly in certain languages considered critical

[2] Dual immersion programs are programs where students spend 50% of the day receiving instruction in English with one teacher and 50% of the day with another teacher instructing in the minority language. With this model, students learn a second language at the same time as standard subjects like science, math and social studies.


[3] Science, technology, engineering, and math.

[4] Bank of America (19.9% of its job postings in 2014), H&R Block (22.3%), State Farm Insurance Companies (24.5%), Rent-A-Center (24.1%), and Crossmark, Inc. (21.5%).

[5] White matter is a component of the central nervous system which actively affects how the brain learns and functions.

[6] Grey matter is another major component of the central nervous system.

[7] Cognitive reserve refers to the resistance of certain aspects of cognition to brain damage.  Cognitive reserve appears to be related, among others, with environmental factors such as lifestyle and education.

The most common successful strategies to use at home for raising bilingual children

The most common successful strategies to use at home for raising bilingual children are:

  • One Parent One Language
  • Minority Language at Home
  • Time and Place
  • Mixed Language Influence

The best strategy for you and your children will depend on your personal circumstances and preferences.

Bilingual Strategy I: One Parent One Language

In this strategy, one of the parents always speaks to his child in one language, while the other speaks in a different language.  In this strategy, one parent can speak the minority language and the other the majority language, or both parents can speak a different minority language to the child. In the latter, the child is exposed to both languages plus the majority language or the language of the community or country where they live. You might wonder how the communication evolves when three languages are involved but it’s less difficult than what you might imagine. However it requires a lot of patience and consistence. Let’s see an example.

A mother who speaks Japanese and a father who speaks Spanish, while they both speak English and use English to communicate amongst each other:: The mother can speak Japanese and the father can speak Spanish directly to the child, yet when they are all together, they can speak in English. However, it is better for the child that the mother speaks exclusively in Japanese to him and the father speaks exclusively in Spanish to him.   For instance if the mother wants to say something to her child and to her spouse, then the ideal way to say it would be twice. Once to the child in Japanese, and once to her husband in English. In this way, you focus on teaching your child to separate the languages. He will soon differentiate “ the language of mom” as Japanese, and “the language of dad” as Spanish. It is proven that children accept this rule relatively well and they will put this into practice even better than their parents.

Bilingual Strategy II: Minority Language at Home

This strategy focuses on the practice of the minority language at home. In this case, parents encourage their children to speak the minority language within home by speaking it exclusively themselves. Then, every time they leave home, they switch and start speaking the majority language. In contrast to the One Parent One Language strategy, the children learn how to separate the language not by person but by place. In this case “outside home language” and “ inside home language”. Children seem very comfortable speaking two different languages to the same person but in two different contexts.  Clearly, this strategy will only work if both parents speak the minority language.

Bilingual Strategy III: Time and Place Distinction

This strategy is the most flexible of all, since parents can use it depending on the time and place. For instance, a family might decide to use the minority language at home and they switch to the majority language over the weekends. Or maybe the parents implement the “one parent one language” strategy over the weekdays and then switch to the minority language over the weekends to insist more on the minority language. Others might prefer to use the minority language exclusively at home and then use the majority language every time they step out.

This is the preferred strategy among multicultural families that spend time in different countries. It consists of switching the language depending on the environment where the family is in. For instance, a family of Chinese residents in the United States that usually speaks Chinese to their children might find it useful to speak only English when they travel to China for a reasonable period of time. This may not seem intuitive, but by switching in this manner,  you will be preventing the child from forgetting his/her fluency in English and you will add flexibility to the language strategy.


Thisis the most common strategy put in place in bilingual programs at school too. In those programs, teachers speak one language or the other one depending on the day. For instance, they might use French on Monday, Wednesday and Friday while using English on Tuesday and Thursday. Or they might speak just French in the mornings and English in the afternoons. They can focus even more on the separation between languages by changing the class. For instance, children may be assigned to the first floor in the mornings where they speak only French and in the afternoon they could assigned to a class on the second floor where they speak only English.

While it may seem odd to change classrooms just to speak a different language, there is significant science behind these approaches.  Psychologists have known for some time that human memory is enhanced by context specific events.  This means that by changing the environment and the context each time the class changes language, children are more easily able to absorb and remember the different langauges.

Mixed Language Influence

This is not a strategy itself. It consists on speaking one or other language depending on daily situations. For instance, parents might use Spanish to speak at dinner and then switch to English to speak about homework. Sometimes it is even more pronounced by alternating words from both languages in the same sentence. I have noticed that this kind of system is broadly used among the Spanish communities living in United States. The extreme use of the Mixed Language Strategy is when people are not able to separate both languages and they tend to mix them creating a new language in the process. The most famous case in the United States, without any doubt, is the development of “Spanglish” which is commonly spoken by Puerto Ricans in the United States. An example that just popped in my mind is the sentence “ El rufo está liqueando”, which is Spanglish. It’s a transformation of the English sentence “The roof is leaking” and the Spanish sentence (of the same meaning): “El techo esta goteando.”

For reasons which may be evident based on the example above,, this is a system that it is not recommended to follow for parents who want to raise their children bilingually because children will have trouble differentiating which language is which, and as a result, may mix parts of both languages without mastering either.

The bottom line of all these strategies is to apply them consistently. If you apply them loosely, your children might not listen to you when you put them into practice. Sometimes, children may apply these strategies in a more effective way than their parents, who might be forgetful or lazy about putting them into practice every day. Emphasize the separations between both languages because it is very important to teach the child the differences between them.

That said, don’t stress yourself out if you occasionally don’t follow your strategy.  Teaching your child a language which is important to you is an extremely powerful way to ensure the child understands where he or she comes from, and it will provide powerful tools for the child’s future. Parents can switch between strategies depending on changes in the environment. If something different occurs in your environment (moving to another country, monolingual family visiting, etc.) be flexible about which strategy to use. The most important issue is which language you want to emphasize more.

In my case, I´m living in an environment which is predominantly English, so I´m trying my best to expose my child to Spanish. That means that I speak exclusively to her in Spanish, I try to spend as much time as I can with only Spanish speakers, I read exclusively in Spanish to her, I only listen to Spanish songs when my child is around and I only let her watch Spanish cartoons.

The key is being persistent with you chosen strategy, make distinction between both languages, and be flexible depending on the changes in the environment.  Every family is different and each family should use the strategy that best suits its special circumstances.


Our role as parents, our role as educators

Unfortunately there are not too many studies about bilingualism yet but researchers agree that the strategies for promoting monolingual children’s language development can be applied successfully to bilingual children.  Below are some tips which studies have proven work for developing language. While you may find some of these tips pretty obvious, I hope you can find useful and new information too.

The more exposure to a second (or third) language, the better.

Decades of research with monolingual children and more recent research with multilingual children have found out that the more exposure the child has had to the language, the better. These studies indicate that the amount of exposure to each language predicts a child’s levels of vocabulary and grammatical development in each language.

The earlier a child is exposed to a second language, the better.

Existing research states that the earlier you introduce your child to the language, the better language outcome he will get. We spoke about quantity before, but high quality exposure gives even better results.

Particularly for children under 18 months, children are more favorable to language learning when we use it as a response to the child’s behavior, attention or verbalization.

With 2 and 3 years old, beneficial language experience takes the form of conversations in which parents or fathers ask their children questions and there are numerous conversational exchanges.

In fact, Children who are exposed to high quality input in two languages before the age of 3 years (and continue to be exposed to both languages over time) outperform others who are first exposed after age 3 in reading, phonological awareness, and competence in both languages. Children who hear two languages from infancy start to learn both languages simultaneously, and the course of development in each language looks very much like the trajectory followed by monolingual children.

Content of parent talk

Additionally, it is not just speaking the language that is important; the content of spoken interactions between parents and children is also extremely important to develop language skills.   If the discussion gets a response from the child,the child is learning more. If we speak about something the child is looking at, the child will be more prone to learn because he will be interested. However children will learn fewer words if parents redirect children’s attention and label objects not of their interest.

Diversity of parental speech

The richer and more diverse the parental speech is, the better the children’s vocabulary development will become. The richness of vocabulary, grammatical and lexical structures is associated with children’s vocabulary size, rate of vocabulary growth, and communicative diversity, phonological awareness, listening comprehension and cognitive skills.

Speaking about past experiences

Parents who talk at length with their children regarding past experiences have children with better vocabulary, story comprehension and narrative skills. This is a very good and easy exercise. Ask questions to your children about past events and encourage them to explain who was there, what objects were involved, what happened, how one thing led to another and why people behaved as they did.

Take dictations

One easy way to significantly raise your child’s vocabulary is taking dictations of children’s oral narratives. It is proven to improve the spelling and the reading comprehension too. . Take a tale that your child likes and do a couple of minutes of dictation every day.

Positive tone

Positive tone is also important. Not only because a negative tone discourages the child, but because the grammatical construction itself. Negative language is typically less rich because it is focused on very few specific words. Furthermore, commands don’t invite a conversation. There is a big different between “Where would you like to go?” and “Let’s go”.

Teaching vocabulary in context

Teaching vocabulary in context also enriches and deepens the child’s background knowledge and hence his or her vocabulary.

A mother that speaks about tools, seasons, plants, insects, and seeds while gardening is providing vocabulary in an appropriate context and therefore, helping her child to acquire a better extensive and connected vocabulary and assimilation of concepts. Do you like to have walks? Bring your child and explain to him/her what you see. Even a visit to the supermarket can enrich the children´s vocabulary with the right interaction.

Reading books

Everyone knows that reading is important, but reading books in particular has numerous advantages. It develops oral language, growth of vocabulary and narrative skills, concepts and knowledge, articulation, phonological awareness, and early forms of writing such as scribbles and drawings. Reading books helps parents to use a more diverse vocabulary and invites conversations around the stories and content of the books.

The last report from the National Early Literacy Panel (2008) presents research and recommendations for early childhood educators for promoting foundational literacy skills. The report identifies the types of early literacy intervention that promote children’s early literacy skills. Their findings support the importance of alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, rapid auto-naming of letters or digits, rapid auto-naming of objects or colors, writing one’s name, and phonological memory as predictive skills for literacy development. An additional five early literacy skills were also identified as potentially important variables, including concepts of print, print knowledge, reading readiness (e.g., alphabet knowledge), oral language skills, and visual processing. Engagement in literacy activities such as book reading promotes all these literacy skills.

The importance of a community

Having a community that reinforces the use of the second language is paramount to the development and the acquisition of second language. Hearing substantial language input from multiple speakers of any given language is more supportive of language development than hearing it from fewer speakers.


The importance of having bilingual programs available:

In the United States, it is a common pattern for toddlers to become increasingly English-dominant in their language skills during the preschool years, while growth in the secondary language decelerates. However, studies have documented that this doesn’t happen when both languages, the majority and the secondary language receive continual support. If you have the opportunity to enroll your child in a bilingual program, do not hesitate to do it. Many people have the wrong assumption that learning a secondary language negatively affects the language acquisition of the primary language, but studies indicate that children in environments where the dual language input is maintained perform at the same level as monolingual children in both languages by the age of 10 years. And researchers point out that bilingual programs have other important advantages too. Access to multilingual programming can assist children in their language and literacy development by facilitating the integration of component skills such as grammatical knowledge or vocabulary knowledge. Furthermore, this development can contribute to the development of parallel skills in a second or third language because children improve their ability to assimilate concepts. Even adults who can speak two languages find it easier to learn a third language because they have trained their brain for acquiring such a skill.

Why are some bilingual parents able to raise bilingual children while others do not succeed?

I used to have the assumption that every person raised in a bilingual family would become naturally bilingual. But that is not true. During all these years I have lived in the United States, the country of multiculturalism par excellence, I have come across many people whose parents and grandparents spoke to them in their native language. To my surprise, I only met some that can speak both languages (English and their families’ native language) perfectly. Most of them can only speak a few words and/or understand their native language!

Looking around for a study that could give me some insight into this phenomenon, I found one by the University of Miami Bilingualism Study Group (BSG). In their study, researchers recruited 25 babies in bilingual families and followed their progress until age 3.  Over the years, they observed all the babies learning words and phrases in both English and Spanish, but by the age of 3 years, several of them had stopped using Spanish. They were not comfortable enough in the second language to answer their parents or the researchers in that language, much less initiate an interaction in Spanish themselves.

We know that children easily pick up the majority language, even if their parents cannot speak it. We know that children have an amazing ability to learn languages.  Yet why is it that some children raised in bilingual families learn both languages, while others do not? What create these different outcomes? What are the key factors that help establish bilingualism in children?

Barbara Zurer Pearson, from the Department of Linguistics, University of Massachusetts published a study that seeks to answer these questions. She explained the phenomenon through five key factors: input, language status, access to literacy, family language use, and community support.


Input means the quantity of minority language that is available in the children’s entourage. It is obvious that the more input, the more learning, and consequently the more proficiency. If children feel comfortable using the language, they will invite more input so they will learn more and they will become more proficient. Attitudes of parents, siblings, and peers are very important to create input. If they share negative attitudes towards a language, they will be subtracting input, which will lead to less enthusiasm for using the language, attract less input, and decrease learning and proficiency. Therefore, if we, as parents, want to raise a bilingual child, we have to promote the minority language and facilitate its use around the child.


In general, children need a greater percentage of exposure to the minority language than in the majority language, and the reason is simple. We are immersed in the majority language. All our environment is in English; television, school,  advertisements, friends, and just about everything else. Sometimes it’s even difficult to use the minority language in public with your child because you don’t want to show disrespect to the monolinguals involved in the conversation.

Further, the natural attraction of the majority language for the child is very powerful. According to the same study, it is more likely that bilingual children sharing the same minority language will speak English or the majority language between themselves in private unregulated conversations. For instance, one of my colleagues of work has two girls of 4 and 7 years old. When they are in class, they speak Spanish. However, English is their language of preference when they are playing in the school’s playground.


Written materials in a language, whether in children’s literature or mass media, can extend input even in the absence of many language speakers. For slightly older children, reading is an important consolidator of their language skills, and contributes to both greater proficiency and retention of a language. In fact, reading skills transfer from one language to another and according to “Language and Literacy in Bilingual Children” (LLBC; Cobo-Lewis, Eilers, Pearson, & Umbel, 2002), children who learned to read in both English and Spanish scored significantly higher in reading in English as well as Spanish.

family's role in bilingualism


It is essential that the family provides enough minority language interaction to support learning it. In fact, there is a theory called “the three-generation rules” that suggests that the first generation (typically emigrants who came to United States) are somewhat bilingual, but they remain strongly dominant in their native language. Their children, the second generation, are fluently bilingual, and their grandchildren, the third generation, will be monolingual in the majority language and will only speak and understand a few words in the heritage language.

It is crucial to have contact with monolingual speakers of the minority language. In families where both parents speak the minority language at home, and especially if their ability to speak English is limited, it will almost always be sufficient interaction in that language to support minority language learning. These are these cases where the children act as “interpreters” of their parents. It is not uncommon to see a woman in a store and asking her child to interpreter between her and the shop clerk.

However, with only one speaker of the minority language, or two fluently bilingual parents, the language environment of the home is more uncertain, and is less likely, on its own, to provide a bilingual learner with enough input.


A connected and united community of minority language speakers can really motivate our children to use that language. We can see many of these communities throughout United States: the Hispanic enclaves in Florida, Japantown in San Francisco or Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, the Polish and Czech communities of South Broadway (Cleveland), Chinatown in New York City…we all know of that part of the city or area where there is a predominance of emigrants from a specific part of the world. It is not uncommon to find people living in those areas who have never had the need to speak English because these communities provide minority language speakers with an economy and services where they can  interact and live using their native language. Children living in these enclaves are exposed to the majority language at school but are otherwise immersed in the minority language.

However, there are some areas of the country populated predominantly with American born individuals which still attract foreigners. Those newcomers normally get integrated easier into the American society but they find it very difficult to pass on their cultural and language heritage to their children due to the lack of community exposure. Yet, they can still create a social community in order to stablish a context to maintain the minority language and culture. A key element of community support provided to a minority language is through education. We should have dual language education programs available to make sure that our children are learning both languages at an academic level.

The study conducted among the Latin community in Miami found that despite their economic and political power, these communities have almost no schools that offer bilingual programs. Furthermore, it concludes that Spanish is being lost in Miami even faster than the three-generation rule would predict, mainly because the community does not seem to recognize the level of threat to the minority language. Every indication points out that children learn the minority language when parents make a conscious effort to expose the language to them. However, if parents don’t make the effort, the majority language will take over.  In other words, while children have a unique natural ability to learn multiple languages, the process is not magic; it takes time, repetition, and focus to nurture bilingualism in children.

The full study can be found in the following link:



Becoming bilingual – fast facts and tips

I recently bought a short pamphlet from the American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA), whose content I like to share with the families that come to my class, because it highlights in a concise way some important facts and tips.

How to become bilngual

Using two languages is like any other skill. To do it well, children need lots of practice, which families can help provide. Without practice, it may be difficult for children to understand or communicate with people in both languages. It can be hard to know how to teach your child to be bilingual. These facts can help:

Fact 1: There are lots of ways to become bilingual

Some people think that there is one best way to teach children to become bilingual. There is no one right way, but there are different ways preferred among the bilingual families:

  • One parent, one language. For example, Mom speaks Spanish and Dad speaks English. This is the system I personally think it works best for our situation, since Dad is not proficient in Spanish, although he tries his best using as many words in Spanish as he can. Anyway, and this unfortunately is not included in this pamphlet, the ideal way from my point of view would be by location. It works better when both parents can speak both languages and they choose the language to speak depending on the location. For example, they speak English outside home and Spanish when they are at home.
  • By time of day. For example, Spanish is spoken in the daytime, and English is spoken at night.
  • By activity. For example, Spanish is spoken at mealtimes, and English is spoken on the playground.

Another way to help a child learn a new language is to use only one language at home and let the child begin to learn the new one when she/he starts school.

ASHA enumerates different resources to help you teach your child two languages:

Books. Read to your child in both languages. Find the books you need at stores, at libraries, and on the Internet. I’m looking for them non stop to prepare the upcoming lessons, and I’m planning to include all my searches in this blog to make your task easier.

Computer programs or mobile apps. There are many interactive programs and apps that can help your child develop language skills. Initially I was reluctant to use apps and the computer at such a short age, but I have found out that a couple of minutes per day has very good results above all to train the ear in the distinction of the Spanish sounds.

Music. Singing is a great way to introduce a second language to your child, and it can be lots of fun!

Television programs and DVDs. Television programs and DVDs are available in many languages. There are different provides of satellite TV, like Dish, with a wide selection of channels from different countries.

Language groups. Children can learn to be bilingual at language camps, bilingual schools or in bilingual education programs. These groups give children the chance to use two languages with other children. I strongly believe this is the most important resource that can help your children to become bilingual. Language is all about communication, so if your children don’t have an environment where they can communicate in the secondary language, they will just not practice it. And as you know, you can easily forget a language if you don’t practice it.

Fact 2. Most children learn to communicate at about the same age and follow typical developmental patterns. This is true for children learning one, two, or more languages. 

Every bilingual child is unique. Developing skills in two languages depends on the quality and amount of experience the child has using both languages. Use languages that you feel comfortable using. Children learn best when they are provided with good models. That’s true, but it’s true too that monolingual parents can raise bilingual children. I will post more about it in the following weeks.

Fact 3. Learning two languages will not confuse your child

From time to time, children may mix grammar rules, or they might use words from both languages in the same sentence. This is a normal part of bilingual language development. I met once a 5 years old child whose father spoke to her in Catalonian and her mother in Spanish. The family lived in Rumania and enrolled her and her brother in the American International School of Bucarest, where her classes were mainly taken in English. Therefore, she was exposed since a very short age to four languages. One day she woke up and she started speaking in a mix of those four languages that nobody was able to understand. Obviously her parents were astonished and extremely worried. However, a couple of days later, she started speaking normal again, being able to answer and speak in each language without mixing all them up.

It is normal too that when a second language is introduced, some children may not talk very much for a while. This “silent period” can sometimes last several months. Again, this is normal.

Speaking more than one language does not cause a language disorder. Also, research shows that, with practice, children with disorders can learn more than one language.

Your child should be:

using words in the more familiar language (1-1.5 years old).

following simple directions (1-2 years old).

putting two or three words together (2-3 years old).

Every kid can speak more than one language. Even children with disabilities like the Down syndrome. The only difference is that he will need extra help from a speech-language-pathologist. If you are worried about your children’s language development, ASHA recommends you to contact a speech-language pathologist. For more information you can contact or visit their website:


Can the learning of a second language interfere in the learning process of my child’s first language?

Several parents have expressed concerns about their children learning a second language. They think that learning a second language at a very young age can affect their children learning skills and get a poor first language acquisition. This is a very common misbelief. Learning a second language (or third), does not interfere in the child’s ability to learn his main language.

It is common that children exposed to more than one language from a very short age tend to mix words and sentences from different languages. This is a normal and temporary situation, until the child understands the differences between the languages he or she can speak. However the sounds of the first language can influence how children learn and use a second language because children who are learning more than one language are likely using similar patterns of learning.  It is obviously easier to learn sounds and words when the languages they are learning are similar, but this shouldn’t be a drawback for learning languages that are not alike. Children have a natural ability to learn and improve their language skills, and when starting a young age, children will learn how make the more difficult sounds and words of any language.

While adults think consciously about which language they are going to speak and select carefully the words they are going to use, children just think about communication. Children don’t think about using one word from this language or that word from another language. What they want to do is let the people know what they want. It doesn’t matter the means to them (crying, pointing out, or mixing words from different languages), but the result, that is, sending the message. This is one of the reasons why children have a better ability to learn languages than adults.

According to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA), if a child has a speech or language problem, it will show up in both languages. However, these problems are not caused by learning two languages. If you know a child who is learning a second language and you have concerns about speech and language development, ASHA recommends contacting a bilingual speech-language pathologist (SLP). If you are unable to find a bilingual speech-language pathologist, look for a SLP who has knows the rules and structure of both languages and who has access to an interpreter. For more information or for a referral to a SLP, contact ASHA at 800-638-TALK (8255) (Spanish-speaking operators available)

Welcome to Be bilingual!

In this globalized world, be more culturally diverse and the ability to speak more than one language has become in many cases a requirement to be successful, not only at a professional level, but a personal too.

The increase in international trade and the access to technologies have boosted the need of people capable of understanding different cultures and languages. But bilingualism is not a contemporary phenomena. There have always been countries like India where it is very common to find people that can speak two or even three languages. People in the borders between countries have become naturally bilingual because of the cultural diversity they have been exposed. Furthermore, in every chapter of our human history, there are references to the “interpreters”, skilled people that have been able to make different cultures reached a common understanding.


The rate of population who can spoke more than one language has increased throughout the world and in United States too. Unfortunately, many states do not have available community resources to facilitate a second language acquisition. New Jersey is one of those. With a population of 8,938,175 million, 30% of its population speak another language different than English at home. According to the 2012 state population census estimates, New Jersey is the sixth state of United States with the largest emigrant population, only after California, Florida, New York and Texas.

In this situation, families successfully integrated in the american society, struggle to preserve their cultural heritage to the point, that their second generation (born in United States) are more likely to be monolingual and only be able to speak the dominant language, which is English. It is more likely that families living in closed communities (like Chinatown or the Spanish quarter in some mayor US cities) preserved and transmit their language, since in those communities is possible to develop the daily routine in the language of that community. For this reason it is not surprising to find people that have lived all their lives in United Estates without the need to speak English.

Therefore, I start writing this blog with the hope of finding more people is my similar circumstances. Married to an American citizen, we speak to our child in English and in Spanish at home. However, my experience as a teacher of bilingual children has proved that this is not enough. Children like to communicate and socialize. Children like to play and meet new friends. But children are very practical too. If they see that their friends speak English, they will naturally refuse to speak their second language just because their friends don’t speak it. Furthermore, even if our children have friends that speak their same second language, it is not certain that they will be able to read and write in that minority language. We have to create an academic environment to be certain that our children will get those skills. This knowledge is very important, not only to prevail the family cultural heritage, but to get better opportunities as professionals in the future. This is our responsibility as parents. Don’t let our children down when we can give them better opportunities.