Parents should be aware of the factors that influence bilingualism and language acquisition in their children. When it comes to languages, there are two sets of parents. There is the parent that wants their child to be bilingual or learn another language. And there is the parent who wonders if learning another language matters or may think that learning another language might damage their child somehow.
Which parent are you? I am hoping that you are the parent who wants their child to be bilingual or, even better, multilingual. Wherever you stand as a parent, this post is for you because it will show how different factors influence language acquisition for kids.
A critical contribution to bilingualism is what researchers Dr. Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrella made clear many years ago. They came up with the five stages of second language acquisition that children experience when they learn an additional language. Krashen’s (1983) stages of SLA are pre-production, early production, speech emergence, intermediate fluency, and advanced fluency. You can visit one of my most visited posts here to learn more about the stages of second language acquisition.
The stages of second language acquisition define language learners’ or bilingual children’s trajectory as they learn an additional language. This includes what a learner can do at each stage. Everyone experiences these stages at some point. What changes among learners is the amount of time it takes to acquire a language, depending on the factors that influence language acquisition.
Researchers are constantly investigating the effects of bilingualism and language acquisition. Some children are born in bilingual environments, but others may only be exposed to one language. No matter your child’s environment, what truly matters is that, as parents, we can support language acquisition. What researchers investigate relates to how either environment can influence language acquisition. These factors include age, aptitude, native language characteristics, learning and language environment, motivation, and cognitive abilities.
The age of acquisition is one of the most important factors influencing language development. The critical period hypothesis helps explain the influence of age on second language acquisition. Hartshorne and colleagues (2018) refer to the critical period as the time when adults’ ability to acquire a language diminishes. They found that children who begin to learn a language before age 10-12 could acquire it better than older peers.
One aspect that relates to the age of acquisition is language accent. Hartshorne and colleagues (2018) also note that the older the child, the stronger the accent may be in the second or third language. An accent is often the one factor that many adults mostly care about. Some people believe that having an accent is a sign of multilingualism. Others sometimes feel discouraged about learning other languages because of an accent. What is clear is that having an accent is a sign of multilingualism that many celebrate in today’s age because we all have accents.
Native Language Characteristics
Native language characteristics also influence language development. Native language characteristics refer to the similarities and differences between a native language and the language they are trying to learn.
For instance, Spanish-English speakers have lots of similarities in English and Spanish. This is because they share similarities like the alphabet and other language factors. However, a Japanese speaker may not have as many similarities to the English language. As a result, similarities and differences in language characteristics contribute to how easy or difficult language learning may be.
When it comes to native language characteristics, another factor to consider is a person’s native language proficiency. For example, strong native language proficiency refers to a person’s ability to read and write their native language. Language proficiency in a first language determines language learning in additional languages. The stronger the native language, the easier to acquire an additional language.
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The language learning environment can influence language acquisition in two different forms. Home and school environments are key components of language development.
Pearson (2007) highlights “quantity of input” p.400 as one of the factors parents can control the most. In language, input refers to the amount of language a child is exposed to in a community or at home. The more a parent uses the language with the child, the more the child is prompted to use the language.
Less input of a language can also contribute to language loss. When parents only speak “English” at home, kids are less likely to use the other language. When children hear and see a language used in their community, it can also positively influence language learning. Another way parents can influence language acquisition is through reading exposure.
Through reading, children learn vocabulary that is often not used in everyday conversations. Reading in any language can also increase reading skills in multiple languages because reading skills transfer from one language to another. Parents show the importance of bilingualism when they monitor and expose children to different languages in their homes.
Another factor influencing language acquisition is the quality and quantity kids are exposed to in schools. Exposure refers to the quality and quantity of grade-level instruction and instructional programming in schools.
Grade-level instruction refers to the curriculum used to teach the target language. The use of grade-level materials allows teachers to differentiate language instruction by meeting kids where they are in the language development process to increase their language growth. This also challenges a child’s learning environment, fostering academic learning by considering a child’s differences.
Instructional programming refers to how a school provides the child with language instruction. Students in dual-language immersion programs have been shown to acquire higher proficiency levels, sometimes very similar to monolingual children. In dual-language programs, the language of instruction will switch from English to another language. In their study, Pearson (2007) shows how dual-language immersion programs positively benefit all children.
The next strongest instructional program is co-teaching. In co-teaching, teachers use grade-level materials to provide small or large group instruction at the student level. When it comes to instructional programming, pull-out is the less effective way to teach a language. However, pull-out is sometimes necessary to help accelerate language learning.
A child’s motivation to learn a language can often support or hinder language acquisition. This is because motivation drives a person’s interest, influencing how much effort is put into learning a language. Dörnyei (2019) suggests that a classroom that excels in student engagement influences a student’s learning experience, increasing motivation.
Teachers and parents can foster motivation in children. For example, language learning and bilingualism are celebrated and highly talked about in my house. Parents can influence a child’s motivation by exposing them to multiple languages regularly. One way to do this is by discussing the benefits of being bilingual.
- Have conversations about bilingual brain benefits
- Connect language experiences to how they see their future self
- Foster language use in their community or by traveling to other countries.
Cognitive abilities may sometimes define a person’s academic ability. A person’s cognitive ability or learning disability may sometimes influence their ability to learn another language.
It takes specific intentional and unintentional functions of the brain to acquire language. In 2019, Woumans and colleagues found that higher performance in specific executive functions of the brain contributes to higher vocabulary knowledge in a second language. Their study notes that some indirect cognitive functions of the brain influence language development.
Wilkinson and colleagues (2006) categorized MLLs with “disabilities and educational needs” p.131, who need specialized instruction to acquire a second language and to learn academic content. Kids with cognitive disabilities benefit from a second language as well. In children with cognitive disabilities, language acquisition may look different, but is often possible when given specialized instruction at their level.
Wikipedia defines aptitude as a competence component to do a certain kind of work at a certain level. In language acquisition, a child’s learning competence influences their language acquisition ability. The higher their competence in learning, the higher the chances of learning a language. However, the lower their competence level, their chances of learning a language are lower.
Parents benefit from considering the factors that influence language acquisition. Understanding each factor can help engage children in a learning environment at home that would foster language acquisition. A positive learning environment, higher motivation, and effective instruction and programming all play an important role in language development for children.
- Dörnyei, Z. (2019). Towards a better understanding of the L2 Learning Experience, the Cinderella of the L2 Motivational Self System. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 9(1), 19-30.
- Hartshorne, J. K., Tenenbaum, J. B., & Pinker, S. (2018). A critical period for second language acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers. Cognition, 177, 263-277.
- Pearson, B. Z. (2007). Social factors in childhood bilingualism in the United States. Applied psycholinguistics, 28(3), 399-410.
- Wilkinson, C. Y., Ortiz, A. A., Robertson, P. M., & Kushner, M. I. (2006). English language learners with reading-related LD: Linking data from multiple sources to make eligibility determinations. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 39(2), 129-141.
- Woumans, E., Ameloot, S., Keuleers, E., & Van Assche, E. (2019). The relationship between second language acquisition and nonverbal cognitive abilities. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(7), 1169.