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Ask Dr. Sears: Bilingual Babies

Q  I'm of Hispanic descent, and my husband and I want our newborn to grow up learning both English and Spanish. Could this hinder language development?

A Not at all. Although learning two languages in infancy has been shown to lead to a slight delay in speaking, experts attribute this to a temporary sorting out of all the extra words a baby learns. And while young bilingual children may insert words from one language into a sentence in the other in the beginning, this tendency fades in a couple of years as they become increasingly fluent in both languages.

In fact, babyhood is an optimal time to start a second language because those portions of the brain needed for speech development are still being formed and are most receptive to storing and organizing a large language inventory, a progression that slows after adolescence. (That's why children who acquire another language early in life are more likely to speak with nativelike pronunciation.)

Learning to speak an additional language can be valuable later on, especially in our increasingly multicultural society. Not only that, language is also a living reminder of a child's roots and a way to preserve the richness of both of his parents' cultures.

Some approaches to try:

  • Speak primarily Spanish to your baby and have your spouse do the same with English. It may be easier for a child to learn both languages if he associates one particular sound and language pattern with each parent.
  • Create a bilingual environment. Songs, stories, and social events can make learning more natural and fun than just being taught words and phrases.
  • Expose your little one as often as you can to visits from friends and relatives who speak each language.
  • Once your child is fluent in both languages, try to speak the second language at home as much as possible to preserve what he has learned.