I was recently interviewed for a national parents’ magazine on bilingualism (if it gets published, I’ll provide the reference and link). The reporter was asking a relatively general question on language development in bilinguals compared to monolinguals. First, I found it difficult to crystallize a complex issue into, literally, a 7-minute interview. Second, it reinforced my notion about the myths about language development in bilinguals that still prevail. When I responded that there is research to show that there are cases in which bilinguals can be more advanced than monolinguals, she interrupted me citing the fact that pediatricians tell parents that development in bilinguals is slower than monolinguals. I interjected, “yes, but…it depends.” It depends on the age of the child, how they came to acquire the two languages, how much input they receive, and output they produce, etc. I know issues about proficiency have been written about on this blog before so I won’t repeat them here. I will say, however, that we have looked at this issue in terms of speech sound development, and I will write about that in an upcoming post. Suffice it to say that these variables clearly influence language development in bilinguals. I tried, without much success, to tell the reporter this. Anyway, we do know that bilingual children might show language skills that are more advanced, less advanced, or commensurate in comparison to monolinguals. So, how does this relate to speech sound development in this group of children?
Just as has been found for other areas of language, we (Leah Fabiano at SUNY-New Paultz and Ferenc Bunta at the University of Houston) found patterns that were (1) more advanced, (2) less advanced and (3) commensurate in bilinguals compared to monolinguals. In a 1996 issue of Studies in Second Language Acquisition, Paradis and Genesee referred to patterns (1) and (2) as acceleration and delay, respectively, (in our work, we changed delay to deceleration so as not to connote a disorder, which would indicate a problem in need of intervention). We have extended the pattern of acceleration to include commensurate acquisition as well on the grounds that bilinguals being able to acquire two things in the same timeframe as monolinguals should be credited as a type of acceleration.
Thus far, we have examined these three patterns in bilingual (and monolingual) children ages 3, 4, and 5. We have found that the three patterns do exist simultaneously in the bilingual children compared to monolinguals. What is the strength of the patterns? It depends.
- It depended on age…as children get older skills between bilinguals and monolinguals become more commensurate.
- It depended on what we measured…measures of speech sound accuracy (e.g., ability to produce a “b” sound) tended to be commensurate but measures of the types of errors (e.g., deleting the last sound in a word) tended to be accelerated (i.e., less severe types of errors) in bilinguals compared to monolinguals.
It’s also interesting to note that these patterns occurred in typically developing children and those with speech sound disorders.
So, are the speech sound skills of bilinguals more advanced, less advanced, or the same as monolinguals? Yes, but it depends.