Is bilingualism in children a hot topic at the moment? Oh absolutely, but it’s by no means a new concept in the history of the world, Italy included.
Up until a few decades ago, almost all Italian citizens were bilingual. In fact, Italian was an ‘extra’ language taught at school in addition to the regional dialect children spoke at home.
Today, the situation is not all that different. Generations of bilingual children are growing up in Italy and ‘adding’ Italian to their mother tongues, which sometimes originate from places very far away from Italy.
These children have non-Italian parents but were born or raised in Italy from early childhood, making them ‘early bilinguals’ and allowing their minds to work completely differently to those of other people who speak two or more languages.
How does the brain of a bilingual child work?
When we talk about early simultaneous bilingualism, we’re referring to children who learn two languages simultaneously, using them with the same frequency and with the same level of skill.
When we talk about successive bilingualism, we’re referring to people who grew up with one mother tongue and then learned a second language at a later date.
When children grow up as early simultaneous bilinguals, they use both sides of their brains to develop two different learning and usage strategies: one for each of the languages to which they are exposed.
This essentially means that simultaneous bilinguals do not translate from one language to another, but are simply just able to speak both.
If two languages are learned successively, however, children (and adults) tend to use the structures of their mother tongue to learn how to speak their second language, thus limiting themselves to the use of the left side of their brain, which helps them to create a series of matches between words in their mother tongue and their second language.
The advantages and disadvantages of being a bilingual child
Simultaneous bilingual children don’t have to make the same leap that adults do when learning a second language, i.e., performing mechanical translation from one language to another.
As such, simultaneous and early bilingual children have a huge advantage when it comes to interpreting. They don’t have to make the same mental effort required when switching from one language to another as they’ve mastered both languages as mother tongues. What’s more, they’re able to effortlessly and immediately translate complex sentence structures.
The disadvantages of being bilingual only really relate to successive bilinguals. It’s not uncommon for the skills developed in a second language to be much weaker than those developed in a mother tongue. Mother tongues also tend to infere in the construction of sentences in second languages. Successive bilinguals tend to restrict themselves to ‘copying’ sentences from their mother tongue, without fully respecting the structures and syntactics of their second language.