The class is called Bilingual Education, and although it is difficult and time-consuming, I am learning so much. Linguists can sometimes be snobs about who is and who isn't considered bilingual (please don't ask me how many languages I speak unless you have 20 minutes to hear the answer), so it was nice to discuss it in class and decide that anyone who can use more than one language appropriately in different contexts is a bilingual. Congratulations! It turns out that the idea of a perfect or balanced bilingual - someone who is exactly, equally competent in two languages - is a big fat myth, or at least a great rarity.
Anyway, my presentation was about rethinking bilingual acquisition in very young children. Back in the day, people used to think that bilingualism in children was detrimental to development and would result in all kinds of delays. Basically, the accepted school of thought was that the brain is only set up to handle one language at birth, and if you give it more input, it will be confused for a while before it figures out how to settle down.
Well, since the 1980s (though it took time to gain its place in accepted thought), they've figured out that actually, the infant brain does quite well with two languages, thank you very much. Check out some of these findings.
1. Babies can totally tell the difference between two separate languages, and they can remember those differences later on. And guess what? This holds true even while the babies are in utero. Pretty amazing. (And since you're going to ask, the research involved measuring changes in heart rate.)
2. Even as young as one or two years old, bilingual children can adjust their use of language depending on the context. For example, if they have a French-speaking dad and an English-speaking mom, they will generally speak more French to the dad and more English to the mom. Even more interesting (and telling) is the fact that this holds true even with strangers. If they are introduced to a (researcher posing as a) stranger who only speaks French, the kids will extend their use of French as much as possible when talking with that stranger. In other words, they know there are two languages and they know when to use them appropriately.
3. Bilingual kids may experience some delays in acquiring their two languages, but they also may pick up some aspects of language faster than monolinguals. It depends on the particular combination of languages. Also, even if there is some initial, temporary delay in bilinguals, they still show greater linguistic capacity overall in mixing and discriminating between their languages in the right contexts.
Neat, huh! Now let's all go teach our children a second language, mmmkay?
(All of these findings are reported in Fred Genesee's article, "Rethinking Bilingual Acquisition," published in Multilingual Matters 123: Bilingualism: Beyond Basic Principles in 2003.)