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Bilingual children lag behind in language learning early on, but catch up by age five

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Given the increasing number of non-English speaking families in the UK, concern has increased over the impact that growing up in a bilingual or non-English speaking home environment may have on children’s performance and readiness for school. So are bilingual children at an educational disadvantage when starting school compared to their classmates who speak just one language?

Using Growing Up in Scotland, a nationally representative data set of 8,000 children, I compared cognitive and non-cognitive skills of three groups of children aged under six living in Scotland: those with two UK-born parents (90% of the sample); those with one UK and one foreign-born parent (9%); and those with two foreign-born parents (1%). Almost half of the children without two UK-born parents spoke both English and another language at home, compared to 1% of those children with UK-born parents.

The results of this research suggests that acquiring two languages does not affect the cognitive and non-cognitive skills of young children, such as their ability to recognise objects, match pictures, or their responsiveness and behaviour in everyday situations. It does, however, temporarily affect their knowledge of English vocabulary.

While bilingual children can initially lag behind in naming vocabulary, however, the disadvantage disappears before the age of five for most of them, except for those who have two foreign-born parents.

The role of parents

Previous research has established that children’s early educational attainment is essential for their later schooling and adult life outcomes. Language is a particularly potent instrument because it influences a child’s ongoing performance as well as their ability to acquire new skills.

Linguists agree that bilingualism may give children an educational advantage over their peers by changing their understanding of certain concepts and improving their creative thinking abilities. At the same time, some research has found that it may delay speech as it requires simultaneous acquisition of vocabulary in two languages.

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A child’s linguistic competence is shaped by their home environment and, therefore hinges significantly upon their parents. Parents’ ability to teach a child two languages plays a crucial role in bilingualism and is often overlooked. In particular, two foreign-born parents may be in a worse position to raise a bilingual child due to their limited knowledge of the language spoken in the host country or lack of country-specific knowledge. Understanding this is increasingly important due to the growing number of multilingual and multicultural families in Europe.

Catching up quickly

I have not found evidence to confirm that the acquisition of two languages affects any skills other than the ability to name vocabulary in English. Children performed comparably in physical and behavioural tests, as well as in tasks testing their cognitive performance, such as matching pictures that contain common elements.

As a group, bilingual children at three-years-old scored lower than their monolingual peers in the vocabulary exercise, in which they were asked to name objects in a picture in English. But they had almost caught up by the age of five. My conclusions did not change when I accounted for a variety of other factors which may matter for the child’s performance, such as their family’s socio-economic background.

The picture gets more complicated when family composition is taken into account. Bilingual children with two foreign-born parents obtained a 25% lower score in the vocabulary naming task than monolingual children at the age of three. This is a big gap – as an average three-year-old scored 56% in the exercise. The significant difference between the two groups was still visible at the age of five.

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Meanwhile, bilingual children with one UK-born and one foreign-born parent scored only slightly worse in the task at age three, but did not perform differently at the age of five.

How to help

Understanding the source of this gap may help shape future education policy. For example, if the origins of a parent or the country-specific context where the child is growing up play a role in the way they learn languages, programmes that help assimilation could be put in place to support foreign families.

Although my work to analyse the role of parental background on these results remains ongoing, I’ve already found evidence that certain actions by parents help children improve their linguistic performance. For instance, those children whose parents reported practising letters with them had better attainment in the vocabulary naming test, and this was more pronounced for bilingual children than children who spoke one language.

Provision of formal childcare also helps address the performance gap by exposing children whose parents are not native English speakers to English.

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Given the positive results of this research, particularly for children from a mixed-nationality background, it will remain to be established whether bilingual children go on to outperform their monolingual peers in skill tests as they grow older.

The Conversation

Joanna Clifton-Sprigg, Lecturer in Economics, University of Bath

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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How Teach for America evolved into an arm of the charter school movement

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When the Walton Family Foundation announced in 2013 that it was donating $20 million to Teach For America to recruit and train nearly 4,000 teachers for low-income schools, its press release did not reveal the unusual terms for the grant.

Documents obtained by ProPublica show that the foundation, a staunch supporter of school choice and Teach For America’s largest private funder, was paying $4,000 for every teacher placed in a traditional public school — and $6,000 for every one placed in a charter school. The two-year grant was directed at nine cities where charter schools were sprouting up, including New Orleans; Memphis, Tennessee; and Los Angeles.

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Quantum physics experiment shows Heisenberg was right about uncertainty — in a certain sense

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The word uncertainty is used a lot in quantum mechanics. One school of thought is that this means there’s something out there in the world that we are uncertain about. But most physicists believe nature itself is uncertain.

Intrinsic uncertainty was central to the way German physicist Werner Heisenberg, one of the originators of modern quantum mechanics, presented the theory.

He put forward the Uncertainty Principle that showed we can never know all the properties of a particle at the same time.

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Why do conservatives hate Oberlin College so much?

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When I was an undergraduate at Oberlin in the mid-Aughts, there was a student in my class year who was obsessed with 19th-century British Royal Naval culture. Every Friday evening, he would host a sing-along in a dorm lounge, for which he would bring xeroxes of historical sea shanty lyrics and pass them around so that we could sing along, waving our glasses of “grog.” This was a semi-established event — he had distributed flyers around campus advertising the weekly British Royal Naval sea-shanty singalong and grog-drinking event, which would extend late into the night. Though he was not a resident of the dorm where it took place, he was welcomed into the lounge by its members, and became a fixture of sorts.Like many well-endowed liberal arts schools in rural areas, Oberlin College functions as a sort of de facto social welfare state, and is designed to encourage and cultivate one’s passions, even if they are not strictly academic. Thus, after writing up a proposal for the student-run activities board, the same student, the British Royal Navy culture guy, was able to plan, organize and execute a ticketed Royal Naval Ball, held in the atrium of the science center. The event featured 20 dishes of authentic British era-appropriate cuisine, cooked by student chefs, several courses of wine and port, and a violinist present to play period-specific music. The whole affair culminated with a traditional, British partner line dance — its sole inauthenticity the fact that we didn’t pay attention to our dance partners’ genders the way the Brits would have.
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