We do know (or I hope we know) that exposure to two languages is not bad for us and it could even be good for us. For kids who are in the process of learning two languages, the challenges that bilingualism poses can be desirable. Yes, learning two languages can be hard, but that’s when we develop those brain muscles (figuratively speaking). What happens as children start school and experience changes in the language they hear? What happens as the demands become greater?In a recently published study, we looked at relationships among children’s screening scores in Spanish and English. Domains targeted included morphosyntax and semantics in English and Spanish using an experimental version of the BESOS (Bilingual English Spanish Oral Screener) for children in first and third grade. We also collected BIOS (Bilingual Input Output Survey) data from parents and teachers. The BIOS (which is part of the BESA) asks about year of first exposure to English and about daily hour-by-hour exposure to English and Spanish. We found some interesting patterns that suggest that exposure and use affects the home (or first) language differently than these do the second language. Also, the effects are different at different ages.
In general, children had their first English exposure around age 2, but currently had more exposure to English (69%) compared to Spanish (31%). As such children performed better on the English BESOS than on the Spanish BESOS. The differences between languages was greater for the older kids. Generally, children with earlier exposure to English had higher scores in English.
For English scores, current use and exposure to English accounted for 28% of the variance for first graders. Year of first exposure to English was highly correlated to current use and exposure. For third graders, current use and exposure to accounted for 8% of the variance in English scores. Age of first English exposure made little difference among children whose first exposure was before age 3, but it was greater for children who first started learning English after age 5 and increased with later exposure. I think what matters here is that age of first English exposure matters if that initial exposure is fairly recent (within the last 3-4 years). As kids get older and the time of first exposure was further back it matters less and less. So, first English exposure at age 4 matters more if a child is 7 than if a child is 9.
Spanish patterns were different however. For first graders both first age of English exposure AND current exposure to Spanish made a difference depending on level of exposure. If children had fairly balance exposure to the two languages, age of exposure to English had little impact on Spanish scores. This means that kids can hold on to their Spanish fluency if they continue to have exposure to Spanish. If they used Spanish a lot of the time, but had early English exposure, they also performed well in Spanish. But, the combination of early exposure to English and low exposure to Spanish contributed to lower scores in Spanish.
Patterns for 3rd graders were similar. But, if they had recent exposure to English with higher Spanish exposure, Spanish scores were more greatly affected. It may be that the language demands of third grade are greater which results in more suppression of Spanish especially as children are beginning to learn English. It may be that more systematic support of the home language would help to maintain the home language– because remember that their English scores are not affected as much as Spanish at this transition.
- current exposure and use matters for English, but even at 50% exposure kids can make good steady gains
- age of exposure matters for English if it was recent (within 3-4 years)
- a combination of age of exposure and current exposure matters for Spanish
- as kids get older, recent exposure to English tends to suppress Spanish more, and this could be related to higher level demands in English