Dual Language Learners and Social-Emotional Development: Understanding the Benefits for Young Children

BlogEarly ChildhoodMar 18 2014

Children who are dual language learners are those who are exposed to more than one language, either simultaneously or sequentially, during the early years of life when language acquisition is taking place. While we often hear about the English proficiency of these children, what do we know about their social-emotional development?

Recent scholarship has emphasized that young bilingual children typically demonstrate advantages in executive function skills (such as attention and inhibitory control) compared to their monolingual peers, and have different developmental trajectories than monolingual children in language and literacy development. Understandably, a lot of attention among researchers, practitioners and policymakers has been placed on supporting young dual language learners’ language and literacy development given the importance of literacy skills as a foundation for initial and ongoing academic success. Strategies to address the school readiness of young dual language learners include, among others, promoting language development in English while still supporting the child’s home language in both the preschool and home settings. But the development of social-emotional skills is also important to children’s success in school and beyond.

There’s a need to know more about the connection between dual language learning and the development of social-emotional skills that are critical to children’s success in school and life. A recent review of scholarly literature published between 2000 and 2011 found only 14 peer-reviewed studies that examined social-emotional outcomes for young dual language learners in family, school, and peer contexts. Despite the small number of studies, a picture of dual language learners’ social-emotional development has begun to emerge. Young dual language learners tend to be judged by teachers and observers as having than English-speaking monolingual peers. There are also some hints at aspects of the early care and education environment that lead to positive outcomes. For example, the use of the home language in the early childhood classroom by teachers is found to have a positive effect on teacher-child and peer relationships.

But there’s a lot that we still don’t know. For example, the research base is scant on studies of dual language learners’ development in the social-emotional domain during infancy and toddlerhood.  And there are few studies that track dual language learners’ social-emotional development over time, from early childhood into the early school years. What’s more, much of existing research is complicated by a lack of consistent definitions of dual language learners across analytic samples and datasets, a limited range of dual language learners represented (mainly Spanish-speakers, sometimes not distinguished by country of origin, and sometimes limited by geographic region of the U.S.), and by several methodological concerns including confounding between dual language learner status and other factors, such as immigrant status and socioeconomic status.

Despite these limitations, the existing studies suggest that dual language learners look as good as or better than monolingual children in social functioning in the early years of life.  Thus, there appear to be advantages to dual language learning beyond more flexible mental ability; there may be benefits to social-emotional wellbeing, too.