A few months ago, I was at the dentist. I was sitting in the chair, patiently waiting for the dental hygienist to arrive. The dental hygienist eventually came. We started talking and got into the topic of family and children.
She told me that she was originally from Poland and that her husband was from Turkey. They all lived in New Jersey now. Intrigued by the cultural and linguistic diversity in that family, the last question I asked before she began working in my mouth was a naive “Oh, wow so your kids are trilingual?”. The answer was totally not what I had expected. For the next 10 minutes she was explaining to me that it’s not good to raise children with more than one language because the kids would get confused by multiple languages which in turn may have negative consequences for them in school. Given that she was working in my mouth, I was not able to speak…but needless to say…I was almost dying in my chair.
Stories like these do not seem to be rare. Even though experience and research have shown that there are pretty much only advantages to speaking more than one language, there are still a number of biases around.
1. Most people in the world speak just one language.
Nope! It is estimated that over half of the world’s population is bilingual. So there are more bilinguals than monolinguals!
2. Children will be confused with multiple languages.
Wrong! Research has shown that there are pretty much just advantages for your bilingual child. In fact, it is estimated that a child can acquire up to seven languages simultaneously—so growing up with one to two languages is a walk in the park!
3. First child needs to learn one language properly; then you can introduce the second language.
It’s hard to believe, but I heard this very sentence (or at least a very similar one) from a very close relative—a very educated person! She truly believed that Ella should learn English (the majority language) before I should teach her how to speak German (her minority language). Interestingly, this is a widespread belief, which I think is tied primarily to the unfounded fear that bilingual children may fall behind academically if they don’t learn the majority language first.
4. Bilingual children will speak later than monolingual ones.
Wrong! In the mid 20th century, the predominant view was that children who grow up with more than one language will learn to speak later in life. Research has found that this is absolutely not true. Both, speech (the sounds that babies make) and language (words, sentences etc.) develop along the same paths in both monolingual and bilingual children. Plus, from my own experience I know that they speak just as early and much as monolinguals! See this post for baby’s speech development or check out this infographic.
5. Not focusing on the majority language will hurt my child’s academic success in school.
Wrong! In her 2012 review article, Ellen Bialystok, one of the leading researchers in bilingual psychology showed that bilinguals have what is called “enhanced executive control”. That means that bilingual children have advanced cognitive abilities—a quality that has been linked, among other things, to better academic performance!
6. The one person one language (OPOL) approach is the best.
Not necessarily! There are a number of different models (e.g., minority language at home, time and place for a certain language etc.) and families should adopt the approach that works best for them because every family and situation is unique.
7. I didn’t start at birth so it’s too late now.
No! It’s never too late! While it may be ideal to start to speak or expose your child to multiple languages from birth, it is never too late to start. Your child will only benefit from it—as long as it is done in a way that is fun and engaging for the child.
8. I’m doing something wrong because one language in my child is stronger.
No worries! At one point or the other on their bilingual journey, most bilingual children will show a preference for one language over the other. In fact, most bilinguals do not have the same level of development in both languages (see this post on what it means to be bilingual). There are only very few bilinguals who are equally proficient in all languages (across all skills like reading, listening, speaking, and writing). They are so rare that researchers like Francois Grosjean have labeled them “special bilinguals.” So good news: just keep up the good work, but relax if your baby does not show equal exercise in both languages.
9. Bilingual children are more at risk to develop an “identity problem”.
Not true! A continuous myth is that children who are exposed to multiple languages and cultures may not feel at home in either. They may feel trapped or caught between cultures and may thus not know where they belong. Most bilingual adults frown when they hear that because they find this idea pretty strange. If both languages and cultures that a child is exposed to are accepted, then the child will develop positive relationships with both.
10. A bilingual child is constantly translating from the stronger into the weaker language.
No! Bilinguals tend to be able to think in both languages. They do not translate in their minds all the time. The bilingual brain stores both languages and accesses and retrieves, for instance, certain words needed in a given situation. So no worries: your child may be an excellent interpreter, but that’s not what is going on in her head all of the time. Bilingual children naturally draw upon both languages.
Maybe you have heard some of these things, but… take a breather! They are myths that have given bilingualism a bad rep. They are pretty much unfounded. Actually, being bilingual gives children an edge! Read more next week about The Bilingual Advantage! Stay tuned and thanks for reading!
Are there any other myths you have heard? Let me know by leaving a comment.