Bilingual Babies and the Culture Complex

We had dinner the other evening with a couple from Hong Kong who have adopted two kids from China, and are raising them in Mandarin-speaking China, speaking Cantonese in the home, and sending them to a school where classes are taught in English.  Their children actually inhabit a trilingual world, and in the highly competitive Asian academic context, their mother was concerned about how the challenge of learning three languages is effecting their ability to speak even one fluently, let alone the acquisition of other formative study and life skills for the future.

Now I’m not a child psychologist or early education expert, but my interest in early language acquisition, bilingual education, and cultural ideologies of early education has been piqued by a slew of recent articles about adoptive children’s language acquisition, bilingual brain power, and bilingual babies. Many of these recent studies tout children’s impressive ability to distinguish between languages even when they are preverbal, and later efficiently multitask, because they frequently access two cognitive systems at once. While there is a small delay for children who are adopted, it’s hard to say whether that delay is a function of orphanage environments and trauma (I think, likely), abrupt transition in language environment, a combination thereof, or other factors.

When it comes to language learning, Americans have come a long way from the ethnocentrist assumptions of the 1950s, which presumed bilingualism would produce a delay in language acquisition and harm children’s learning curve. And yet, when it comes to the cultural delivery of early education, it seems our prejudices still remain indignant and rigid.

I’m fascinated by Joseph Tobin‘s “Preschool in Three Cultures” Study, which compares early education environments in Japan, China, and the U.S..  It was first published in 1991, and then recently repeated and reissued in 2007. In related articles on early education, Tobin draws on a wide variety of cultural experiences in Chinese, Japenese, and French classrooms to question the basic tenants of our educational ideology in the United States, and posit that children, being prepared for corresponding cultural environments, tend to do quite well despite wide-ranging early educational experiences.

Take a moment to read about some of the classroom experiences in China and Japan and question your own assumptions about the best learning environments. Then, take a look at some of his anthropological conclusions and let me know your thoughts!

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One thought on “Bilingual Babies and the Culture Complex

  1. We found your blog post very interesting. As we raise a daughter in another culture as a bilingual baby, what you wrote about how pre-verbal babies understanding both languages is true. Our baby is still learning how to speak but clearly understands and responds correctly to both Spanish and English. Loved the link to the NPR piece on bilingual babies. What advice would you have for families considering using one language at home (English), one language in day to day life and socially (Spanish) and a third language in primary school (French or Italian)? -Brad

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