Language Mixing Challenges And Benefits Kids 011713
January 17, 2013

Language Mixing Challenges And Benefits Kids In Bilingual Homes

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

A new research study at Concordia University indicates that for kids growing up in bilingual homes, language mixing can present short-term challenges for language acquisition and long-term benefits for cognition.

In the project, the scientists discovered that bilingual parents often participate in language mixing, where elements from two languages are found in the same sentence. The team of investigators found that language mixing can sometimes be an obstacle for one- and two-year-old children who are looking to expand their vocabulary. Yet despite this initial challenge, the researchers believe that later on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism counteract the initial issues they face.

“Studies comparing monolingual and bilingual infants have shown that bilinguals are more adept at switching between strategies and are more able to learn two rules at the same time,” explained Krista Byers-Heinlein, a professor of Psychology at Concordia University. “Infants exposed to frequent language mixing could develop specific strategies for coping with this type of input. That could lead to cognitive advantages that would outweigh any initial difficulties brought about by language mixing.”

A total of 1,818 bilingual parents who spoke English along with another language were included in the study. The scientists observed the number of times and the particular situations in which language mixing occurred. The parents were raising their children in either bilingual or trilingual environments, in which the kids were exposed to one or two languages on a daily basis since birth.

The team of investigators discovered that language mixing was a common occurrence for bilingual parents as well as their children. In particular, some 90 percent of the parents reported that they had used language mixing in interactions with their children. Language mixing was used for specific reasons, such as when they could not find the specific translation for a phrase and instead borrowed words, or when a word was difficult to pronounce. In other instances, parents borrowed words from different languages when trying to teach new words to their children. As such, language mixing can be considered a device for bilingual parents to teach their children new words in different languages.

Furthermore, the researchers wanted to find out how the children learned and picked up new vocabulary. They studied 168 children of parents who had participated in the study. All the kids were learning English, but they were all learning different non-English languages, including German, Japanese, French and Farsi. The researchers discovered that the parental language mixing affected the comprehension vocabularies in younger children.

“High rates of language mixing make it harder for children to categorize words they hear. That could lead to slower word learning and smaller vocabularies. It also seems that it´s more difficult to learn a word from a mixed-language sentence than from a single-language sentence,” explained Byers-Heinlein.

However, the researchers believed that raising children in a bilingual environment should not hinder them overall.

“Even if exposure to language mixing is initially challenging for vocabulary acquisition, it likely has benefits over the long term,” continued Byers-Heinlein.

The research comes at a particularly important time, as immigration and international mobility increase throughout the world. Past studies have looked at the impact of bilingualism in adults, demonstrating their increased “cognitive flexibility” in comparisons with monolingual peers. Byer-Heinlein will continue studying the subject, specifically focusing on French-English bilingual in Montreal.