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How do children become bilingual?

Learning a second language can occur in two different ways: simultaneous learning or sequential learning. Simultaneous learning (typically under the age of three) occurs when children are exposed to a second language at the same time as they are acquiring their first language (the “native language” or “mother tongue”), for instance when the parents and crèche staff speak in different languages. Sequential learning happens when a child is already familiar with the first language (typically after three years old) and is then exposed to learning a second language. Learning of both the first and second languages, however, involves imitation, repetition and reinforcement.

What are the stages of learning?

According to research, children progress through observable stages when acquiring their second language sequentially:

1. Home language use – where the child is already proficient in a language (e.g. French) and is then put into an English-speaking class, the child will continue to speak their first language. This is normal and persists for weeks or months.

2. Nonverbal or ‘silent’ period – at some point, the child realises that they need to find other ways to communicate, such as nonverbal communication. At this important stage, the child is focusing on comprehension of the features, sounds and words of the new language. Again, this may last for a short or longer time, depending on the child. Silence should not be seen as a lack of learning – the child is actively learning.

3. Basic speech (telegraphic and formulaic speech) – Children start to speak in the second language, but only in simple ‘formulas’ without proper grammar. The child may use single words (e.g. “kick” for “he kicked me”) or phrases (e.g. “Amélie doll!”) to express an idea or get into a play situation.

4. Productive language – children start to construct their own sentences to convey their own thoughts. Whilst this may still be grammatically incorrect, the structure and vocabulary improve with time and exposure to the new language.

For children who learn a second language simultaneously, the stages of learning are very similar to the stages of language acquisition for monolingual children.

When is the best time for a child to learn another language?

Age does affect the ability to attain native-like pronunciation and grammar but there is no definite age ‘cut-off’ 2. Some researchers have stated that ages 6 or 7 are important, whilst others have highlighted pre-pubescence as the optimum time to acquire native-like language. There are other influences, but the general consensus seems to be the younger the better and anywhere from birth to puberty. After this time the structures of the brain change and that may be why it is harder to attain native-like proficiency for those exposed to a second language later in life.

Will exposure to more than one language confuse my child and impede learning?

No. Children may experience a period when they speak neither language as well as a monolingual child3, but this is normal and temporary for children early in their exposure to a second language. A bilingual child will tend to know as many words in the two languages combine, as a monolingual child in one language – but the words are often specific to the context in which they are used. It is also normal for children to start a sentence in one language and finish it in another, or to mix languages. In later years, children and adults continue to do this to find a particular meaning.

Childhood is the best age to learn another language, for a child is at a stage of spontaneous assimilation which won't occur again. Because the learning of a second language is done without compulsion and without measuring performance, a child will assimilate at his or her rhythm, but will not compromise the acquisition of the maternal language.

Are there any other benefits to speaking a second language?

There are several cognitive benefits to being bilingual. The main empirical finding is that bilingual individuals have enhanced control of attention. Research shows an advantage for bilingual individuals in many cognitive skills, such as attention switching. When children have access to two or more languages they have been found to outperform monolingual children where more effortful and controlled attention is required in complex tasks.

What are the benefits of a child learning as second language at CAB?

The CAB experience provides the social benefits of a multinational and multicultural environment – including children who are native English and German speakers (and other languages). Interaction with native speakers is important for second-language acquisition4, especially for young children. Exposure to other native-speaking children and their cultures will enhance the learning process and acquisition of that second language. The language teachers at the CAB ecole are also all native speakers. This helps children to speak English and/or German with a more natural accent. At the CAB, children use all of their senses to learn a language. This enhances memory retention and makes it fun and enjoyable for the children. CAB pupils are active in their learning process, and teaching methods are based on the theories of respected pedagogues. Also, the CAB education focuses on the whole child, developing the child in his or her totality, not only in the intellectual domain but also in the emotional, social, artistic and sporting realms.

How can I help my child to become bilingual?

1. Support your child’s learning a second language. If possible, speak a little of the second language in the home. This gives a signal to the child that the family are supportive of this new language. The child may unconsciously fear that embracing the new language will result in being outcast from his/her own family unit.

2. Create many opportunities for exposure to the second language. Frequency and intensity of interaction with the second language is a key, so if the child has television time each day, encourage a proportion of that time every day to be in the second language. Books are another great source of learning for the child that can be enjoyed by the whole family. Playing second language songs (at home or on the way to and from school), singing and playing games aids natural learning.

3. Praise your child. Praise your child for trying/completing any of the activities in class/at home that are in the second language. Your child is learning to embrace new experiences and is showing real courage. Encourage this.

4. Follow the rhythm of your child. Follow the rhythm of your child and listen to their needs. Do not stress or criticise the child. All children are different and learn at different rates. Make learning a second language fun and enjoyable and the learning will happen.

5. Be patient. Acquiring a second language is similar to acquiring the first. Remember how many hours your child spent immersed in his or her native language before he/she became fluent? You need to allow time for your child move through the following stages: not understanding > understanding simple commands > understanding more complex commands > saying single words > saying multiple words > saying basic sentences > saying grammatically correct sentences. Do not interpret the nonverbal or ‘silent period’ as a lack of comprehension!

How long will it take for my child to become bilingual?

This depends on a number of factors such as the child’s age, personality and the opportunity they have to practice. Each child is different. Very talkative children who need interaction with others are going to be highly motivated to start speaking! At the same time, other children may focus more on comprehension, and speak just a few words or simple phrases of the second language at the end of maternelle (jardin d’enfants). Children often understand more than your realise but be aware that they may not want to speak to you in the second language yet! Much progress is then made in the transition to CP and CM1 and a child will be able to use more complex sentences by the end of CP/CM1. The rates of attaining a second language clearly vary and that is normal: all children reach stages of development and skills acquisition at different times. That is what makes children so wonderfully unique and special, and this uniqueness is wholly celebrated within CAB ecole.

If I moved, would my child be able to start up again elsewhere easily?

CAB develops a child's capacity to adapt to other methods and provides a very good scholastic level. Everyone who has left CAB agrees with this.

Aren't the many activities at CAB detrimental to scholastic progress?

The many activities a child undertakes at CAB are not 'on the side'. They are, in fact, the means by which teaching is assimilated; they help the pupil to learn more easily.

What is the position of CAB with regard to discipline?

A child needs to know, without ambiguity, what is permitted and acceptable at CAB and what is not (during class time, recreation, coming and going to school, during school excursions...). The setting of limits requires reflection and group work on the part of teachers and those responsible for the children. It is a difficult balance to maintain, between rigidity and liberty, between the learning of self-control and non-interference, between spontaneity and respect for others.

Why do you attach so much importance to the participation of parents?

By participating in school life, parents create a link between the worlds of a child (home and school). They thus also know what makes up the child's day (environment, school, teachers, other pupils, activities...). Parents introduce to children their diversity, their availability, their abilities. To participate in the life of the school is to enrich it. Parents contribute their values, their dynamism to the school. They help us build and develop the Centre Actif Bilingue.


1. Tabors, P.O., & Snow, C.E. (1994). English as a second language in pre-school programs. In F. Genesee (Ed.) Educating second language children (pp. 103-125). New York: Cambridge University Press.

2. Munoz, C. and Singleton, D. (2011) A critical review of age-related research on L2 ultimate attainment. Language Teaching, 44 (1), 1-35.

3. McLaughlin, B. (1992). Myths and misconceptions about second language learning: What every teacher needs to unlearn. National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning: Educational Practice Report #5.

4. Llanes, A. (2011). The many faces of study abroad: an update on the research on L2 gains emerged during a study abroad experience. International Journal of Multilingualism, 8 (3), 189-215.


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