The Bilingual Edge (book review)

I’ve had this book, The Bilingual Edge (Kendall King & Alison Mackey) on my book shelf for a couple of years, but hadn’t got around to reading it. While looking for books to bring with me for the long flight to DC, it caught my eye. I’ve read it now, and thought that I would review it here.
Overall, it’s a smart little book about bilingualism, but I found it to be quite US-centred and US-biased. That’s to be expected, I suppose – both the authors are researchers in the US. However, it means that the book’s usefulness is limited for parents dealing with anything other than English-something bilingualism.
The book is divided into four sections: Why are two languages better than one?, Which language and when?, How?, and What if…? The first section is definitely “research lite”, in that they paint broad strokes about the research base in child bilingualism, but they do a very good job of dealing with many of the common misconceptions about bilingualism. For anyone dealing with family (or other) disapproval about choosing bilingualism for their children, this book is worth buying, for this section alone. The authors’ support for bilingualism comes across as solid, accessible and most of all, short and sweet. This is the chapter you give to your pediatrician who is counseling you to only speak one language to your child, to your child’s teacher when issues arise or to any other naysayers along the way.
The second section is really mostly relevant for parents who are choosing bilingualism for their children, rather than for families for whom bilingualism is a necessity. The examples (and there are many) try to include bilingual families, but the whole tone of this section and the information included is much more geared towards monolingual English-speaking parents who want to raise their children bilingually, with a heavy emphasis on a US language paradigm.
The third section is similar, in that although it does address the “How” for bilingual families (parents speak different languages), it is more useful to monolingual families seeking to include another language in their lives. However, this is certainly an important audience to reach, and although I don’t agree with all their suggestions, it does provide monolingual parents with guidance and encouragement for the possibilities they can give their children.
The final section, which deals with possible problems, is appropriate for all types of situations. The authors deal very well with the issue of bilingualism and language delays, special educational needs or other challenges. In addition, they tackle the tricky issues of family disagreements about language use, refusal of one language and a variety of other problems that can be encountered by families dealing with more than one language.
Overall, this book has some useful information, and is definitely accurate and research-based. However, the bias towards the US language landscape means that much of the book would be inapplicable to families living outside the US. And as a small aside, there were far too many exclamation points for my liking.

4 thoughts on “The Bilingual Edge (book review)

  1. celine says:

    Hello Eowyn!

    Thank you for writing this blog. What do you think what is the best age for a child to be disposed to the second or third language outside of the family? I mean, should parents wait until their child has got a solid basis in the “home language(s)” before sending he or she to the local daycare or school?
    Thank you in advance for your answer!


    • eacrisfield says:

      I think it really depends on the circumstances and the need for the third language. If the parents speak two different languages, and the third is a community language that the child will need (for school), then the third should be introduced early enough to give the child a basis in the language before starting school. If the third language is purely by choice (no need for it to communicate in daily life) then it can wait until later. Whichever method the parents choose, it’s important to remember that adequate input is required in all languages for a child to master them. So, the more languages being used, the more need there is for planning, to ensure that each language is being used enough.

      • celine says:

        Thank you for your reply. The importance of planning I got very well from your lecture 🙂 If you do not mind, I explain my question.
        In our situation the third language is community language and will be spoken at school.
        I was confronted with a strong opinion that community language tends to dominate over the years and if a child did not get the solid basis in the home languages, he or she will gradually lose connection to the parents (given the fact they still insist on speaking their mother tongues).
        To keep this connection alive, the parents will have no choice but to speak community language. Which means a clear perspective of giving up on multilinguality.
        To avoid it, they recommend to keep community language aside until the age of 4 years (approx.)
        What do you think of this advice? Do you have experience with that?


      • eacrisfield says:

        Hi Celine,

        The short answer is that there is no one-size-fits all answer for your question. Yes, in some cases the local (school) language does become dominant after the children start school. Whether or not that happens depends partly on the languages in question (majority or high-status languages are easier to maintain) and how much effort/time the parents have to put into supporting their language (activities, friends, travel etc).
        Some families do choose to wait until school age (4-years old here) to introduce the school language. How this works out for the children depends a great deal on the school in question. If the school has services and support for language learners, and differentiates instruction and assessment during the language-learning period, this can be successful. However, many local schools do not offer these services, which can lead to academic stress and lack of success for some children.
        As always, it is a question of weighing carefully the family situation and options, and making a decision based on these – what works for one family may not work for another, and indeed the same solution may not even work for two children in the same family.


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