The Effects of Bilingualism and SES on Language Development


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Meaningful interaction. Image Robert Whitehead

Meaningful interaction is necessary for better language development. Image by Robert Whitehead.

Research shows that children from homes in which a language other than English is spoken develop language skills differently and at a different rate to those of children from middle-class, monolingual English-speaking homes.

 SES, Bilingualism and Language Development

Over the years, Professor of Developmental Psychology, Erika Hoff, on the faculty of Florida Atlantic University, has focused many of her studies on the effects of bilingualism and SES on language development and has published a recent article on the subject. In a series of interviews, Decoded Science took the opportunity to discuss the issue of language development of children from minority language homes with Professor Hoff, and explore what part SES plays in language development.

Both Bilingualism and SES Affect Language Development

Professor Hoff emphasized that it is important to understand that both bilingualism and SES influence the rate of language development; they are separate sources of influence on language. Since many bilingual children are also from low SES families, their language development is influenced by both factors.

Language Development Paths and Rates

Decoded Science: Could you explain what a language trajectory is?

Dr. Hoff. Image E Hoff.

Dr. Hoff. Image E Hoff.

Professor Hoff: A language trajectory is a path that children follow in developing language skills. Some children follow steep paths and make progress quickly. Other children follow paths with a less steep incline, and they make progress at a slower rate. One very interesting question is to what degree children end up at the same place but get there at different rates and to what degree different paths get children to different levels of ultimate language skill.

Decoded Science: Do you know the answers to the difference in rates and future language development consequences?

Professor Hoff: We don’t fully know the answer to this, but we do know that the skills children have when they enter formal schooling are very predictive of academic success. Thus, the children who have been making progress at a faster rate from birth to 5 years have a big advantage.

Decoded Science: What is the expected language trajectory of a young child?

Professor Hoff: Although there is an average course and rate of language development, there is no average child. Children seem to be very similar in the course of language development they follow, first babbling, then producing single words, then combining words, and then producing longer and more complex sentences—to give a very rough sketch. All this time they are building their vocabulary knowledge as well. The differences that I study are differences in rate. Rate is important because differences in the rate of language development result in differences in the level of skill children have when they enter school.

Decoded Science: How do the language trajectories of children from language minority homes differ?

Professor Hoff: Early language trajectories of these children vary widely. Some children who hear only the minority language at home, develop as monolingual speakers of their parents’ heritage language until they begin preschool or kindergarten. Although many children from language minority homes develop as bilinguals, their language skills in each language differ. Some have English skills similar to monolingual English-speaking children, but many do not.

Bilingual Language Skills and Differences

Decoded Science: Does SES affect greatly the difference in the development of bilingualism?

Professor Hoff: Well-designed studies of preschool children find that on average, children who are acquiring two languages have lower levels of skill in each language than do monolingual children, even if they are from the same SES.
In addition, many bilingual children come from immigrant families who are more likely to be poor and in which the parents are likely not to have achieved the same level of education as the language majority population.

Decoded Science: Where are the main differences seen in language skills?

Professor Hoff: Significant differences appear both in vocabulary and in grammatical development. However, interestingly, overall, children learning two languages do not learn language at a slower rate. Measures show that bilingual children equal or exceed monolingual children in their rates of vocabulary development and in one study, grammatical development as well.

Decoded Science: It seems as if bilinguals should be behind in language development not in front.

Professor Hoff: Let me explain this point further. The important word is ‘overall.’ Children learning two languages learn each language at a slower rate than children learning only one language. For children learning two languages, their total language knowledge combined across both languages is equal to or greater than that of monolingual children, but in each language considered separately, it is less.

Decoded Science: So language minority children coping with two languages lag behind?

Professor Hoff: Studies describing the English language skills of children from language minority homes at school entry find consistently that children exposed to a language other than English at home enter school with lower levels of English. The findings of multiple studies in the United States have led researchers to refer to a “school readiness gap” between low-income bilingual children and monolingual middle-class children.

Affects of SES and Minority Language Use

Decoded Science: So SES is a major factor in language development for bilingual children?

Professor Hoff: Yes, many language minority children lag behind middle class monolingual children both because of SES and because they are learning two languages.
However, it is not clear how much of the gap in school readiness characteristic is a function of SES and how much is a function of their dual language exposure. There is evidence that SES is not likely to fully account for the difference between language minority and middle-class monolingual children.

Decoded Science: What about parents who are not fully proficient in the communal language? Which language should they use when speaking to their children?

Professor Hoff: For most immigrant parents bilingualism is not a choice they make for their children. They speak one language and the community speaks another. The only thing my research does clearly suggest is that parents do a better job talking to their children in their native language. Some immigrant parents try to speak the community language even though they are not very proficient in it, and that hurts their children’s heritage language development while not benefiting their children’s majority language development very much.

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