What everyone should know about language development in children

Inaugural lecture Elma Blom

In her inaugural lecture, Elma Blom debunks two persistent myths about language development. “Many people think that children are fully-automatic language sponges. That's not true. People also often think that multilingualism is a problem for children. Also not true.” Blom will have her inaugural lecture ‘What everyone should know about children's language development in a diverse society’ on 11 January at Utrecht University.

Portretfoto Elma Blom
Elma Blom (photo by: Ivar Pel)

Blom shows that the image of the child as a fully-automatic language sponge is widespread. “That leads to misconceptions and incorrect conclusions about children,” the newly-appointed professor says. “This is because in a significant number of children, language development is not going very well at all. For instance, approximately 7 % of five-year olds has a persistent language-development disorder. This makes learning languages extremely difficult for them, without a clearly identifiable cause.”

Developmental opportunities for children

The statement that children are not language sponges is also shown by the fact that children's language development is linked to how often children hear something being said in their language surroundings. “The more often children hear something, the better they learn it. As the provision of languages determines which languages they learn, some children learn certain words and grammatical rules faster than other children.” Blom points out that everyone who deals with young children can be a part of this: “Parents, the babysitter, pedagogical employees and teachers need to be convinced that they share a responsibility for children's language development. A less successful language development is a factor that can threaten public health, because that has serious consequences for children's developmental opportunities.”

In many places, also in the Netherlands, multilingualism is the norm.


Blom also debunks the myth that multilingualism is a problem to children. “This assumption is so far-reaching and deeply-entrenched that people assume multilingualism can only result in a language deficiency.” Various scientific surveys contradict this assumption and state that multilingual children are not falling behind. “But the outcomes themselves are confusing,” Blom indicates. “There are surveys that conclude that multilingual children score lower on various language tests. But here too, the provision of languages is a determining factor for the degree in which children learn a language. It's not multilingualism, but less provision of languages that results in multilingual children being less proficient in one language than their monolingual peers.” 

New norm?

The fear that children cannot handle multilingualism has even led to the Dutch government initiating research into whether or not multilingual daycare comes at the expense of children's Dutch language development. That surprises Blom. “In many places, multilingualism is the norm. For instance, there are many multilingual children in Frisia. Many children in the Netherlands learn a dialect besides Dutch. And migration also results in multilingualism.”
Abroad, multilingualism is the norm as well. “In Papua New Guinea, children even learn four or five parallel languages. There is no indication at all that these children experience problems due to being multilingual. Quite the contrary: if they were monolingual, they could not maintain themselves socially.”

Elma Blom will hold her inaugural lecture on 11 January at 4.15 PM in the Auditorium of Utrecht University Hall (Dutch name: Academiegebouw).

More information

Press officer Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, 030-253 4027, r.a.b.vanveen@uu.nl