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Early Bilingualism Can Enhance Early Learning

Jean Fahey

The face of our nation’s youngest children is changing. Recent (2010) census data shows dramatic changes in the racial and ethnic makeup of our nation’s youngest children. The numbers of Hispanic and Asian children in particular are on the rise. Furthermore, one in four children under the age of 8 grows up in a US family with at least one foreign-born parent, or about 8.7 million children. This is more than double the number of children in 1990. 1

The Paradox of early bilingualism. There is a common misguided belief among parents that reading to children in their home or native language may compromise their ability to learn to read in English. And oftentimes, if the parents don’t speak English, they may not read to their children at all due to lack of books in their home language.

Programs like “Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors” in Albuquerque, New Mexico are doing what it takes to bring light to the truth and encourage parents to read to their children in Spanish. Programs like this exist across the country working with immigrant families to teach them about the benefits of speaking and reading to their children in their native language.

Research shows that when children begin to switch from language-1 to language-2, the brain develops greater cognitive flexibility and thinking speed as well as better attention and self regulation. When given optimal home and school environments, these skills can generalize into other areas of school and learning. 2,3 And this is true for any language.


What are these optimal home and school environments for infants and toddlers?

  • Both environments restrict screen time (TV, videos, e-media). Dr. John Hutton, a pediatrician who wrote the award winning Baby Unplugged book series and the blog,, recommends  no screen  before  age 3 and banning screens from bedrooms and meals is a really good idea when it comes to babies and toddlers.
  • Both environments embrace the unique opportunities of a child’s first 3 years through loving, playing and learning creatively, face to face, skin to skin with many, many books close by.
  • And finally, when parents assess when their own screen time use is keeping them from responding to their young child’s comment, inquiry, or interest, their children could reap very big benefits indeed.

How Early Bilingualism will benefit the brain. Even the tiniest of infants are listening for the voices of their mothers. They can even discriminate between the sounds of the home or native language and a second language. This strongly suggests that the first years of a child’s life is a ripe opportunity for exposure to the “home”  languages, as long as the language is “back and forth” and spoken by the important people in the child’s life. 4


What Can Parents Do To Prepare Their Bilingual Child For Learning to Read:

  • Read to your baby or toddler in your home language every day: Visit the library with your child at least once a week and borrow a pile of books in your home language. When the library runs out, visit another. Borrow books online if you have exhausted the supply of books in your community.
  • Ask for audio books in your home language. Audio books are wonderful ways to build vocabulary in your child’s first language and expose them to the delights of listening to a story with “sound effects” (e.g. music, the clip clop of the horses’ hooves, the narrator’s mood and voice, etc). Audio books (especially for those long drives in the car) join parent and child together as they pay attention to the same thing at the same time. This is called “joint attention”. It turns out that joint attention causes some of the most profound early development in your child’s magnificent baby brain.
  • Borrow wordless books from your library and make up the story as you go. There are several advantages to wordless books.  They force parents to “create the story” rather than just read text. This exposes children to more words and complex sentences as parents “make things up”! My daughter’s two very favorite wordless books were: Good Dog Carl by Alexandra Day and A Child’s Book of Art by Lucy Micklethwait. We read the books a dozen times making up a dozen different stories!
  • Learn a second language with your baby! Classes that emphasize face to face, conversational turns (e.g. taking turns chatting, gesturing, etc.), joint attention (paying attention to the same thing at the same time) will expose your baby to the sounds, rhythms, and tones of a second language. And when these language elements are reinforced by you, over time, inside of loving and nurturing interactions, the neural connections for the second language will strengthen.

(originally published at


  1. Foundation for Child Development. (
  2. Yoshida, H., (November 2008). The Cognitive Consequences of Early Bilingualism, Zero To Three, (
  3. Poulin-Dubois, D., Blaye, A., Coutya, J., Bialystock, E., (2010). The Effects of Bilingualism on Toddlers Executive Functioning, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, DOI:10.1016/]
  4. Byers-Heinlein, K., Burns, T.C., & Werker, J.F. (2010). The roots of bilingualism in newborns. Psychological Science, 21 (3), 343-348.