Seven Bilingual Myth about Raising a Bilingual Child
Myth 1- Children Need to be Super Smart to Grow Up Bilingual
ANY child can be bilingual. You don’t need to worry about whether or not your child is “smart enough” to learn two languages at once. Children are born prepared to learn languages. Pre-verbal infants begin reacting to different languages in different ways as early as four days after birth.
No special gift is needed — a young brain is more of an advantage in learning languages than any natural aptitude. Exposure to and stimulation in multiple languages is all a young brain needs to begin learning multiple languages at once.
Myth 2 – Learning Two Languages Will Confuse a Child and Prevent Either One from Being Learned Properly
A monolingual child who can’t come up with the word for something he or she wants may substitute pointing, made-up portmanteaus (combinations of existing words), or longer descriptions. Bilingual children have another source for alternatives in their second language.
It’s very common for bilingual children to speak phrases or sentences in one language, but use occasional words from their other language. This isn’t a problem of confusion or an inability to tell the languages apart. As we stated earlier, children can distinguish different languages from the very first days of infancy.
The mixing is just a sign of the bilingual child using a second communication tool when one isn’t able to express his or her needs. There’s no evidence right now that being raised bilingual harms development in a child’s primary language.
Myth 3 – Bilingualism Leads to Language Delay
If your child still prefers to use her hands to explain what she wants and not her tongue, don’t blame it on bilingualism.
A more specific concern related to the last point, there is a belief that children exposed to multiple languages from birth wait longer to become functionally verbal at all.
The reality is that language delay is common in all children. It’s one of the most common developmental delays in early childhood. Because it can be difficult to explain, many people tend to jump to the conclusion that a bilingual child’s speech is delayed because he or she is learning two languages, even in the absence of any evidence to support the connection.
Myth 4 – Children Who Mix Languages Early in Life Will Continue to Do So
It’s always important to remember that language isn’t an abstract, academic concept to children. It’s how they express their wants and needs. In a bilingual household, the easiest way for them to get what they want may well be to mix their languages in the middle of sentences. Parents often worry that their child will do the same at school, and learn more slowly as a result.
But the child will learn to communicate effectively at school too. If teachers and peers only speak English, the child will very rapidly learn to ask for things in English, without any of the blending he or she may do at home. Studies show that by the age of five, bilingual children who need to speak a single language in their communities have learned to do so without using words from their second language.
Myth 5 – Bilingual Education Needs to Happen from Infancy. After Three Years, a Second Language is Too Hard to Learn
Did your child celebrate their third birthday? Good news – you still have years to raise them bilingual.
Infants have the definite advantage in learning two languages at once. The first year of life is when our brains are working the hardest on learning to understand how language works. A child trained in two languages during that time will have a more inherent understanding of the relationship and differences between than someone who starts later in life.
None of that means that bilingual education can’t start later. In fact, it’s done exactly that way in many countries — children are raised speaking their native language at home, but begin education in English as early as kindergarten. By that age, children understand that a second language can be learned as a skill, rather than as an inherent part of their environment.
Myth 6 – Parents Must Be Fluent in a Language to Raise Their Child Speaking It
Two monolingual parents may wonder if it’s even possible to raise their child bilingual. If they only speak a single shared language themselves, where will the child get the exposure needed to develop a second?
Like most of the myths covered here, you can take comfort on this one by remembering — lots of people have done it. Many immigrant families arrive with small children and no one in the household speaking more than a word or two of the new dominant language. The child will quickly learn bilingually, even if the parents struggle to acquire the new language themselves.
Parents who don’t have the advantage of being surrounded by a second language can still raise a bilingual child. It usually means learning some of the language yourself, but it also requires outside stimulation from people who speak the second language fluently.
Myth 7 – Parents should stop using the first or home language when the child begins speaking a second language such as English
In fact, the best way for families to support children learning English is to maintain the child’s first language at home. Parents don’t have to talk in English to help their child learn English. It is more important that parents use the language that they can use best and are the most comfortable speaking. When they do this they can provide models of grammatically correct sentences and access to a wide vocabulary. Parents should therefore continue to use their first language to talk to their child about everyday activities such as shopping, and share poems, stories, songs, books and games.