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)