Addressing language acquisition issues for bilingual children

Despite genetic hardwiring of babies’ brains to learn language, emerging evidence suggests that different languages are acquired in different ways based on their specific characteristics. Most of what child development and education professionals know about language acquisition in young children is based on monolingual studies and is difficult to apply to bilingual children. But a large and growing number of young boys and girls worldwide are operationally bilingual—which means they receive regular input in two or more languages between birth and adolescence. Because language instruction and assessments are typically monolingual, understanding how simultaneous bilingual acquisition affects the taught/tested language could be an important step in supporting language development for young children. Does a low English score mean that a child is academically behind and in need of intervention? Or is she exhibiting a normal pattern based on her amount of exposure at home? A group of United Kingdom–based researchers believes they have made a breakthrough in the area of language development measurement that may open new avenues of education and support for dual language learners.

Their work involved three separate projects. The first consisted of collecting data on language exposure in a cohort of 372 typically-developing two-year-olds simultaneously learning English and one of thirteen other languages. They assessed variables such as the amount of each language overheard by the child in the home, which parent spoke which language, whether parents were fluently bilingual, overall language exposure, and various demographic data. The researchers developed a checklist of one hundred familiar words in English and the other languages, remaining sensitive to cultural differences to construct the most universal lists possible, and parents reported whether their children recognized or could say the words in both languages. This resulted in development scores in both languages. As has been observed in other research and practice, the English scores for these bilingual children were generally below the average achieved by monolingual English learners. And large variations were observed among the non-English languages, which indicated that some linguistics-based “interference” caused by simultaneous bilingual acquisition might be at work in suppressing the English scores.

The second project tested the relationship between the two sets of scores, looking for the variables that most influenced English language outcomes. The typical family-based variables came into play—parental education levels, socioeconomic status, and overall language exposure—but researchers also tested an outside variable called “linguistic distance,” or the difference between English and the other test language. This distance was determined by a number of linguistic factors, including lexical and phonological overlaps—words that sound similar and mean similar things in two different languages—as well as the relative complexity of pronunciation and the subject-verb-object structure in which the words typically occur in each language. They determined that the more distant the additional language was from English, the lower the child’s scores would be in both perception and production of English test words. Put another way, two-year-olds learning both Mandarin and English at the same time will have a lower average English vocabulary score than two-year-olds learning both French and English at the same time. And both sets of bilingual children will have a lower average score than monolingual two-year-olds exposed only to English. This isn’t because they’re learning English at an improper rate, it’s because learning two very different languages at once is difficult, even for youngsters whose brains are fully capable of the task. Researchers were able to create a weighting system to determine a more accurate average English score based on this weighting, leading to a new assessment tool—the UK Bilingual Toddlers Assessment Tool (UKBTAT). It takes into account the interference that bilingualism exerted on children learning English, which results in a more accurate assessment of proficiency and better tools to help those who need assistance.

To test the UKBTAT’s validity, the final project used the tool to predict the English scores of a new cohort of fifty-eight two-year-olds bilingual in English and other languages not initially studied in the development of the UKBTAT. The researchers assessed the new languages for linguistic distance from English and plugged them into the UKBTAT protocol, along with family-based variables. The weighting factors accurately predicted the children’s English vocabulary score, confirming the validity of the tool.

The researchers believe that this new English assessment protocol, if widely implemented in the UK, will reduce the number of children who are wrongly diagnosed with language delays, and will help teachers, speech therapists, and healthcare providers more easily find children who are truly in need of services. Additionally, the types of assistance needed by young children learning two languages should, theoretically, vary based on the linguistic distance of those two languages. One size does not fit all, especially when it comes to language acquisition and development from toddlerhood into school age. The more we know and the more effective tools that teachers can have at the ready, the better.

Jeff Murray
Jeff Murray is the Ohio Operations Manager of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,