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Welcome to Week 2

In this article, we introduce how research on multilingual language development works and what it tells us.
Children sitting on the floor in a classroom setting raising their hands
© University of Reading

Welcome to Week 2 of the course. This week we will explore the effect multilingualism has on the mechanisms of language development and we’ll introduce you to the research that’s helped inform our understanding. Before getting into the detail, let’s look at how researchers study multilingual language development.

Researchers working on multilingualism sometimes compare multilingual children to monolinguals. This can be helpful when the presence of two or more languages may shape the learning process in ways that are fundamentally different from when children are learning only one language. For example, research comparing word learning in bilingual and monolingual infants has shown that aspects of the word learning process are different depending on how many languages the infant is learning.

Sometimes, including monolingual children in a study is not relevant because the behaviour under investigation can only be found in multilingual speakers. For example, studies on code-switching or cross-linguistic influence (more on these later). Sometimes, the focus is on understanding the complexity and variety of multilingual experience. For example, while monolingual children are exposed to their language 100% of the time from birth, the age of first exposure to the different languages of a multilingual speaker varies and so does the relative amount of exposure and use of each language. Be wary of research which uses a ‘deficit model’ in which one of multilingual speakers’ languages is compared unfavourably to that of a monolingual.

It’s also important to bear in mind that the vast majority of the research undertaken to date has been produced in the Global North and highly skewed towards English and other well-studied Indo-European languages. Although the number of articles published on non-Indo-European languages from countries outside of North America and Europe is increasing, it’s clear that further work needs to be done to construct a truly representative account of children’s language acquisition1.

So what can research tell us?

There are similarities as well as differences in the linguistic development of monolingual and multilingual children. All children, regardless of the number of languages they are exposed to, will be driven by their need to communicate to map linguistic forms to communicative functions. However multilingual children need to do so in two or more languages, either at the same time (simultaneous multilinguals) or at different times if they are adding a new language to ones they are already learning (sequential multilinguals). Dealing with more than one language presents both challenges and opportunities that children who are only learning one language don’t experience.

This week you ‘ll explore this in more detail and cover how multilingual children learn:

  • how to listen to and understand words by mapping sound to meaning
  • how to read and the relationship between written symbols and meaning
  • how to put words together to listen and tell stories, and convey and understand complex concepts.

Learning how to understand language and communicate in it, is an integral part of children’s development.

Discuss

In addition to age of first exposure and the relative amount of exposure and use, what other factors are likely to account for the wide variety we see in multilingual children’s language development?

Reference

  1. How diverse is child language acquisition research? Kidd, E., & Garcia, R. First Language, 42(6), 703–735. 2022
© University of Reading
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Understanding Multilingual Children's Language Development

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