Simultaneous Bilinguals’ Surprising Language Trajectories

When most people think of Emergent Bilingual students, they usually think of sequential bilinguals.  Sequential bilingual learners are those students who have a clear first language (L1) and acquire English as a second (or subsequent) language (L2) at school (or elsewhere). However, across the United States, the majority of our Emergent Bilingual students are simultaneous bilinguals.  Simultaneous bilingual students are those students who are exposed to more than one language before the age of five, many of whom are exposed to more than one language from birth (Escamilla et. al, 2013). 

Long before ever entering Kindergarten, our simultaneous bilingual students, mostly having been born in the United States, acquire a Language Other Than English (LOTE) at home while also picking up some English outside the home (Escamilla et. al, 2013, Beeman & Urow, 2013). For instance, students may acquire English with neighbors or at daycare.  On the other hand, other simultaneous bilinguals have two languages spoken to them at the home itself, where one parent speaks the LOTE to them while the other speaks English to them.  (Of course, a small minority are learning two LOTEs at home and pick up English either at daycare or once they start school.) 

While the prospect of our students becoming completely bilingual and biliterate should excite us, unfortunately, many educators falsely believe that our simultaneous bilingual students have a language deficit and should be quickly distanced from their LOTE. This false belief arises because when our students register for Kindergarten, they often score lower on standardized, language screeners in both their languages.   However, this phenomenon of low scores on both exams is seen largely because such tests are designed with a monolingual lens and do not take into account students’ entire, linguistic repertoires.  Therefore, a simultaneous bilingual student who takes PreLAS in both Spanish and English may score a 2 on both language exams and therefore, be labeled a  “limited speaker” of both languages, but in reality, they are not “limited speakers.” Their language development is exactly where it should be developmentally as a speaker of more than one language.

Because of the label “limited speaker,” educators often interpret low scores on both screeners to mean that students are “a-lingual” or “low language.”  In fact, I was once told by a principal that the scores demonstrate that “there’s not a language issue here, but a poverty issue.”  She also told me, “The students have no language because nobody talks to them,” thereby making unfounded assumptions about students’ families.  And as an extension of these beliefs comes the argument that students do not belong in our Dual Language programs because, “they don’t present as bilingual.”

So what do we do when educators believe that our simultaneous bilinguals are “low language?”  One solution is to share the research.  The following graph demonstrates that children, less than 27-months old, who are acquiring more than one language from birth do in fact, on average, demonstrate lower word production in each language compared to monolingual, English-acquiring children in their one language; however, our simultaneous bilinguals’ combined word production in both languages closely follows the trajectory of monolingual, English-acquiring children. In other words, kids who are acquiring two languages and monolingual, English-acquiring children actually produce the same number of words, only for simultaneous bilinguals, the words are split across two languages. Furthermore, the graph demonstrates that around 27 months, the combined word production of bilingual toddlers increases at a greater rate than the word production of monolingual children.  In other words, if, after our babies reach 27 months, you add up all the words that simultaneous bilinguals produce in both their languages, they actually produce more words than their monolingual, English-acquiring peers. This phenomenon demonstrates that language acquisition is actually happening at a faster rate for simultaneous bilingual children than for monolingual, English speakers and that if both languages continue to be fostered, by Kindergarten, our simultaneous, bilingual students’ combined word production will actually be significantly greater than the word production of our monolingual, English speakers.  This fact is unfortunately not captured by language screeners which test for individual language proficiencies, which may still lag behind in both languages.  Finally, we can extrapolate from the graph that if both languages continue to be fostered in school through say a Dual Language program, that eventually both of our simultaneous bilingual students’ language trajectories will catch up to and possibly exceed the single language acquisition trajectory of our monolingual, English speakers, meaning that our simultaneous bilinguals will be fully bilingual and biliterate while our monolingual, English-acquiring students will continue to speak only one language unless offered other opportunities.*

Hence, when simultaneous bilingual students enter our schools, we should view them through an asset-based lens that recognizes the great potential that exists in both their languages.  Our students are true Emergent Bilinguals who can someday master multiple languages if we as schools do our job to maximize their potential.

*Another interesting observation from this graph is that English acquisition seems to outpace Spanish acquisition for our simultaneous bilinguals.  Nevertheless, this is a phenomenon that merits its own blog post in the future.  


  1. Excellent! Much of the findings support the seminal work of François Grosjean in 1985: The Bilingual as a Competent But Specific Speaker-Hearer. (Journal of Multilingual, and Multicultural Development, 6(6), 467-477).


  2. I love that graph by the Erika Hoff study (it’s one I know well!) and appreciate you layering in the realities of schools with the findings in a coherent way. Mas y mas por favor!!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s