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To Be Bilingual and Biliterate Since Early Childhood

It has been a long history that linguists and educators have devoted to understanding how young children acquire languages from the environment and are socialized into the local community. Theories such as imitation theory, innateness hypothesis, active construction of grammar, and statistical learning model have been used to explain how monolingual children establish their interlanguage grammatical rules from the language input and produce context-appropriate utterances. As our society gets more and more multicultural and multilingual, various forms of bilingual programs are now available for early childhood education. With decades of study, it has been proved that bilingual education supports both socio-emotional development and the learning of cognitive skills at the same time. Realizing the importance of bilingual language learning, studies have examined the impact of family background on the bilingual abilities of young learners (Chen and Ren, 2019), the relations between bilingual learning and attention (Williams et al., 2019), the development of morphological awareness (Choi et al., 2017; Tong et al., 2017), the acquisition of receptive vocabulary skills (Sierens et al., 2019), narrative skills in first and second language (Hao et al., 2019; Uchikishi et al., 2018), and the importance of metalinguistic knowledge in developing writing competence (Sun et al., 2018). However, due to language dominance, developmental asynchrony, and input ambiguity (Yip and Matthews, 2007), more studies are in need to reveal the bilingual developmental trajectory.

*Timeline of language acquisition for monolingual children from Clark, E. (2016). Language in Children.

Language acquisition, no matter monolingual or multilingual, is both biologically and socio-culturally based. New-born infants are talented language learners. At birth, they can distinguish different phonemes from different languages. For example, a 2-month old baby from an English-speaking family can tell that voiced /b/ and voiceless /p/ are two different sounds in English, but also can distinguish aspirated /ph/ and unaspirated /p/ which are the same in English but represent different meanings in Thai. However, part of the language learning mechanism is biological-based, and this wonderful ability will disappear around the age of 12-month. After that, the infant will focus more on the phonemes in his or her own native language, which is known as phoneme filtering. According to Noam Chomsky and other traditional linguists, there is a critical period during which the human mind is able to learn language; after this period, language cannot be acquired in a natural fashion. Empirical studies showed different results on when it is the critical period. In most cases, it is believed that the critical period is from early infancy until puberty. Based on this theory, although it is not possible to learn another language after puberty, language learning should get started as early as possible. Lev Vygotsky emphasized on the role of social interaction in cognitive development. In his theories, language and thoughts are interdependent and a child’s cognitive development is largely influenced by the surrounding culture. The Zone of Proximal Development (or ZPD in abbreviation) refers to the distance between what a learner can do without help, and why he or she can do with support from someone with more relative knowledge or expertise. Children learn languages step by step. Providing experiences that are within their ZPD would better support them to use the knowledge they already have and learn new things based on that.

Top 6 Tips for Parents

From the perspective of language socialization (Schecter and Bayley, 2007), young bilingual children learn languages when interacting with teachers and peers in preschool classrooms every day. They acquire language features as novices that are socialized into the local community of speech in a dynamic and interactive process. To better support your young children to be bilingual and biliterate, parents can try to:

  • Provide rich and various language input as much as possible

  • Introduce new languages as early as possible

  • Use native languages at home

  • Have some literacy events together (i.e. bedtime story, name match, literacy practices, etc.)

  • Help the child socialize with adults and peers who speak different languages

  • Talk about cultural events and stories



Chen, J. J., & Ren, Y. (2019). Relationships between home-related factors and bilingual abilities: a study of Chinese-English Dual Language Learners from immigrant, low-income backgrounds. Early Childhood Education Journal, 2019 (47), 381-393.

Choi, W., Tong, X., Law, K. K., & Cain, K. (2017). Within- and cross-language contributions of morphological awareness to word reading development in Chinese-English bilingual children. Read Writ. 2018 (31), 1787-1820.

Clark, E. (2016). Language in Children. Routledge: London and New York

Hao, Y., Bedore, L. M., Sheng, L., & Pena, E. D. (2019). Narrative skills in two languages of Mandarin-English bilingual children. International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. 21(4), 325-335.

Schecter, S. R., & Bayley, R. (2007). Language socialization in theory and practice. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Eeducation, 17(5), 605-625.

Sierens, S., Slembrouck, S., Gorp, K. V., Agirdag, O., & Avermaet, P. V. (2019). Linguistic interdependence of receptive vocabulary skills in emergent bilingual preschool children: exploring a factor-dependent approach. Applied Psycholinguistics. 2019 (40), 1269-1297.

Sun, B., Hu, G., & Curdt-Christiansen, X. L. (2018). Metalinguistic contribution to writing competence: a study of monolingual children in China and bilingual children in Singapore. Read Writ. 2018(31), 1499-1523.

Tong, X., McBride, C., Ho, C. S., Waye, M. M. Y., Chung, K. K. H., Wong, S. W. L., & Chow, B. W. Y. Within- and cross-language contributions of morphological awareness to word reading and vocabulary in Chinese-English bilingual earners. Read Writ, 2018 (31), 1765 – 1786.

Uchikoshi, Y., Yang, L. & Liu, S. (2016). Role of narrative skills on reading comprehension: Spanish-English and Cantonese-English dual language learners. Read Writ, 2018 (31), 381 – 404.

Williams, A. I., Ychikoshi, Y., Bunge, S. A., & Zhou, Q. (2019). Relations of English and Heritage Language Proficiency to Response Inhibition and Attention Shifting in Dual Language Learners in Head Start. Early Education and Development, 30(3), 357-374.

Yip, V. & Matthews, S. (2007). The bilingual child, early development and language contact. Cambridge University Press: London.


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