False: children do not learn a second language overnight

Children do not acquire a language overnight.

Children do not acquire a language overnight.

A popular belief is to think that children who are exposed to another language at late stage of bilingual development or after the age of 3 acquire a language overnight; indeed some people have the certainty that children “soak it up like a sponge”. Conversely, there is an extensive body of research revealing this myth to be false and that sequential bilingual children go through stages the lengths of which vary from child to child. According to Tabors (2008), second language learners (L2) experience 4 stages in early L2 development: 1) use of home language, 2)nonverbal period, 3)formulaic language use and finally 4)productive language use. The first stage refers to children speaking their home language in the host language environment; this stage is often very brief. During the second stage, the nonverbal period, children are elaborating the input in the L2 but produce a very few utterances or no words in L2; this stage can last for a few weeks to a few months with younger children usually experiencing this stage longer than older children. The social interaction and the L2 exposure have a major impact on L2 children at this stage. Follows stage 3 with the formulaic production of L2; children at this stage use very short utterances which most of the times are not original. Only at stage 4, children can use their L2 productively, however, the majority will not sound as native speakers as even young children can have a foreign accent and make mistakes in vocabulary or grammar. The lapse of time in second language development between when the learner begins to use the language productively until the learner attains a similar fluency as a native speaker, is usually referred to as Interlanguage, a term coined by Selinker in 1972. Interlanguage consists of a rule-governed linguistic system which exists on its own right and evolves over time; it is formed of developmental and transfer patterns which in the past were considered to be errors. In fact, transfer from L1 to L2 was seen as very detrimental to L2 learning, whilst most recently the effects of transfer have been also found to result into the right patterns and not only into errors. Despite the fascinating nature of Interlanguage, this review does not have the capacity to include a detailed research showing its characteristics, whilst it will carry on with exploring a controversial question which seems to be at the core of parents and professionals’ concerns; how long is needed for L2 children to reach native-speaker proficiency? The answer to this question is crucial, above all for those parents who are concerned when their child appears to acquire the L2 rather slowly. According to recent research sequential children acquire the L2 at different rates as they are influenced by internal and external factors. These factors are accountable for individual variations with the internal factors including motivation, personality, language aptitude, cognitive maturity and language distance typology.  External factors refer to the outside context where the child learns the L2 and consist of quantity and quality of L2 exposure at home and in the school environment; with the socioeconomic status (SES) of the family also playing a major role in predicting L2 competence. Johanne Paradis (2011), investigated how numerous internal and external child factors, predict the L2 acquisition of L2 children in terms of vocabulary size and accuracy with verb morphology. The scholar examined 169 children with an age between 4 and 7 years old, exposed to the English language for an average of 20 months. The children were members of families recently moved to Canada. Paradis (2011) found out that both factors were significant predictors of different outcomes in L2 children. However, she also discovered that internal factors such as language aptitude, age and L1 structure had a more substantial impact on individual variations than external factors.  Another study conducted by Chondrogianni et al, (2011), investigated the effects of child internal and external factors on the development of L2 English and Turkish speaking children belonging to a low socioeconomic status. Forty-three children were tested on the acquisition of vocabulary and morphosyntax; the data once again revealed that both language domains were influenced by both factors whilst, there was no significant impact of external factors on the development of tense morphology. To sum up, some children might be able to carry on an articulated conversation in L2 after only one year of schooling, whilst some  others might find themselves producing simple sentences after the same period of time. Whether L2 children will ever reach an identical fluency as native speakers remains still an open question that future research needs to investigate. Most importantly, parents and professionals should take the child’s internal and external factors into consideration before fearing language impairment. Above all, professionals should gather as much information as possible in order to rightly assess the child’s L2 competence.

For more information please contact me on raffaella@languagesalive.com


Bilingual Code Mixing is not a sign of confusion










A distinctive behaviour of bilingual speakers is Bilingual Code Mixing (BCM), which usually takes place when two languages are mixed in the same or in two different utterances in the same conversation. The amount of code-mixing varies in bilingual children, with some who code-mix frequently, some others a little and some children code-mix at different rates with different family members. Virtually all bilingual children code-mix even if their parents adhere to the “one-parent, one-language” principle; that is when each parent communicate to their child in one language only. Empirical research extensively supports BCM, which appears to be a normal phenomenon in dual language development. Furthermore, code-mixing does not occur only in bilingual children as it is common among adult bilinguals and highly proficient language learners. In this field, a vast body of research demonstrates that such individuals are able to create a flawless conversation when mixing both languages. Therefore, given the above conditions, code-mixing is believed to be a sign of proficiency in adults. Nevertheless, among children BCM has been thought to be, by parents and some professionals alike, a signal of confusion and cause of concern. In order to debunk this bilingual myth, it will be helpful, once again, to look into the Unitary Language System Hypothesis, according to which bilingual children are not able to differentiate their evolving languages at early development stages. Parents and professionals who believe in the validity of such a hypothesis, interpret code-mixing as a symptom of confusion, and in some instances as a sign of incompetence. As previously mentioned, such a hypothesis has been discredited by research that has exposed numerous shortcomings in the design methodology applied to these early studies. In fact, early research focused exclusively on how often bilingual children code-mixed and overlooked how frequently they could use their language in a sensitive context manner. A study conducted by Genesee et al, 1995  examined bilingual children between the ages of 22 and 26 months during naturalistic interactions. All the children were English-French bilinguals from Montreal, raised by their parents following the cited one-parent, one-language rule. The children were observed in three different contexts; alone with their mothers, alone with their fathers and in presence of both parents. In the latter context, the children were able to separate the two languages according to which parent they were interacting with. In this way, even at early ages, children were able to adjust their languages according to different contexts. These findings are incompatible with the Unitary Language System Hypothesis which would have expected the children to use random language despite diverse contexts. Furthermore, such results do not support the confusion hypothesis according to which children are not capable of becoming bilingual without experiencing language confusion. An integrative review of the subject is provided by Guiberson (2013), who did not find any evidence in the literature analysed to support such an assumption. Moreover, a recent study conducted by Greene et al., 2013, sustains the Lexical Gap Hypothesis (Paradis et al, 2011), according to which bilingual children code-mix not because they experience confusion or are not able to differentiate between their languages, but rather because they are filling the gaps in their lexical or syntactic knowledge in order to satisfy their communication needs. The scholars analysed code-mixed responses of 606 five-year old English and Spanish speaking children, and compared their prevalence, frequency and accuracy on expressive semantic items. The children were divided by language dominance established, based on the amount of language exposure and usage. In addition, they were allocated to a no-risk or at risk of language impairment group according to individual performance achieved in an English-Spanish screening battery. The results showed that the children used code-mixing to fill lexical gaps, which is consistent with other studies on children and adults. This study demonstrated once again that lexical choice and language preference requires linguistic competence in more than one language. To close, in most cases BCM should not be regarded as evidence of language delay or impairment; parents and educators should not admonish children for using it. Further, it is recommendable for language development specialists and educators to desist from advising parents to restrict their communication exclusively to one language on the postulation that this will correct any language learning problems.

For more information please contact raffaella@languagesalive.com

Hand picked activities with Kids in.


Hello folks,

I hope life is treating you well

I recently came across the” kids in” website and by browsing it, I found loads of activities for children; from holiday clubs to birthday parties you name it. The best activities are hand picked for the best experience your child will benefit from. They operate all around London and in many cases the entertainers will come straight to your place at your  convenience. However, activities are also carry out in nursery and schools, a wide choice is given.

Birthday parties vary from cooking to science and are customised to the client’s wishes.

I highly recommend their services, here is their website www.kidsin.club so you can have a look, do not miss out!


Depressed? Cooking and baking can help you out!

preparing food

Virgina Woolf once said : “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one had not dined well”.It looks like science is finally catching up with the writer’s words. According to a recent report from the Wall Street Journal cooking and baking can help out with depression. That explains why more and more treatments centres and clinics are offering cooking classes.

According to Jeanne Whalen who wrote the story in the WS Journal there are two reasons why cooking combined with a therapy can be beneficial; one is that it simply teaches how to make healthy food, secondly the process of cooking is a way for patients to focus and avoid negative thoughts.It is a way to help socialise and increase confidence.

The focus of the report is on teenagers patients receiving classes through a treatment center o clinic, however she states that cooking in general is considered therapeutic. A study carried out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention affirm that parents and children cooking together instil healthy habits and behaviours moreover it boosts the bond between them. In addition it avoids the risk for children to get obese at an early age. So it appears that attending a cooking class whether or not you are in therapy is beneficial anyway. It is a hands on approach which gets the person to focus the mind on something concrete for a period of time. Also, at the end of the class there is a sense of accomplishment that can be shared with others.

Here at Languages Alive we offer language and cooking classes for adults and children, the workshops are fun and promote an easy way to learn a language.

How do bilingual children represent languages in their mind?

Portrait of Hispanic boy


Besides the importance given to the relationship between language and cognition, researchers have showed a great deal of interest in the nature of language representation in the child’s mind with investigations focusing on whether children at very early stages represent in their mind the language input they receive, in a single or dual language system. From the 20thcentury to the early 1990s, researchers seemed to find a general consensus on the fact that children do not acquire language bilingually at an initial phase. This concept is expressed by a very influential hypothesis during that time, the Unitary Language System Hypothesis, postulated by Virginia Volterra and Traute Taescner (1978). According to the scholars, bilingual children begin acquiring a second language with a single language system which combines the words and the grammatical rules from their dual language input. According to them, only after the age of 3 the child starts to differentiate the languages which are channelled into two separate language systems. On the contrary, Fred Genesee (1989) advanced an alternative view: The Dual Language System Hypothesis, according to which children exposed to two languages from birth establish two separate linguistic systems which, however, are not necessarily independent and autonomous. The Dual Language System hypothesis appears to be supported  by recent research for what concerns speech perception, phonology, vocabulary and morphosyntax.  

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Bilinguals benefit from more cognitive advantages. Dementia is also delayed in adults.

Bilingual child


Most recently a prominent researcher in the field, Ellen Bialystok (2001, 2010, 2012), found evidence of advantages in bilingual children linked to metalinguistic awareness;  the skill to ponder and handle the elements of language independently of their communicative use. Her research has concentrated on bilinguals who have a high command of both languages and use them regularly, proposing that low levels of bilingual proficiency or usage are inadequate  to produce these cognitive advantages.  She refers to such advantages as “executive control functions” which consist of activation, selection, inhibition and coordination of information during the solving of conflicts or planning. In other words, Bialystok has argued that such cognitive advantages are given by the use of selective attention and inhibition functions that highly proficient bilinguals employ in order to channel misleading information, sequentially  inhibited to avoid interference between two language systems.  Furthermore, Bialystok and Barac (2012) studied a total of 104 six year old children belonging to diverse groups English monolinguals, Chinese-English bilinguals, Spanish-English bilinguals and French-English bilinguals; all the children had equivalent general cognitive level, psychomotor speed and socio economic status (SES). The four groups were analysed and compared in their ability to carry out three verbal tasks, and one non-verbal executive control task, in order to study the generality of the bilingual effects on development. Even though, the bilingual groups presented several differences in language similarity, cultural background, and language of schooling, they all performed alike in the executive control task and outperformed monolinguals. On the other hand, only those bilinguals whose language of instruction was the same as the language of testing, attained the best performance on verbal tasks. These results endorse the assertion that bilingualism acts independently of those variables exhibited in the investigation. Bialystok et al (2004) also demonstrated that the cognitive advantages related to dual language input and learning do not affect only children, but also adults. In addition, the scholars found out in their study in 2007, that the onset of dementia, in the case of bilingual and monolingual patients with the same clinical diagnosis, was delayed by 4 years in the bilingual patients. In summation, contemporary research has demonstrated that results vary, showing at times advantages for bilinguals, other times advantages for monolinguals and some other times no difference between bilinguals and monolinguals. These findings are of particular interest as they dismiss the simplistic idea that bilingualism causes good or bad effects unconditionally. Further, they help to dispel those bilingual myths which have led to a pessimistic view on the subject; indeed, for too long bilingual children have been considered to be not typically developing if they showed any differences in their development compared to monolingual children. Parents and educators should therefore consider the advantages that can derive from dual language learning in early development.

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