Myths about raising our children with more than one language abound. Very often parents are discouraged from doing so. I was often told it could potentially lead to confusion and speech delays, or that they’ve missed the “window of opportunity”. In this article I aim to debunk some common myths and to set the stage of the real story behind raising our children to be bilingual.
1. Growing up with more than one language confuses children.
Probably the most prevalent of all the misconceptions. Some parents tend to think that if a child is exposed to two languages at the same time, she/he might become confused and not be able to differentiate between them.
Pearson (2008) wrote extensively about bilingual children. One of her most important premises was that already at a young age all children can tell the difference between many languages. She says that this is especially true when the languages are quite different from each other- as different for example, as Spanish and Hebrew.
Rest assured that your child’s little brain has more than enough horsepower to cope with two languages or more without affecting the dominant language. I’m guessing the confusion myth is probably the result of older research that looked at inadequately designed studies and drew conclusions that early exposure to more than one language puts children at a disadvantage. This research prompted some immigrant parents to drop their heritage language and to emphasize proficiency in English.
So do what comes naturally. Remember that children suffer only if they are unloved or treated cruelly. They do not suffer if their parents talk to them and play with them in only one language, or in two, or in three or four. Having said that, whatever languages they are exposed to in general, they will deal with the situation as they grow up. You can do no damage to your children through your linguistic choices.
2. Raising a child to be bilingual inevitably leads to speech delays.
It is generally true that some children raised bilingual do take a little longer to start talking than those raised in monolingual households. The delay is temporary, however, and according to many experts, it’s not a general rule. It can be potentially dangerous to think that the child’s speech is delayed because the child is bilingual. Bilingual children vary from one another just as monolingual children do. Therefore, some will be early and some will be late speakers.
The problem usually arises when parents who raise concerns about the speech developments of their bilingual child are often told to stick to one language. This usually happens because in the past, bilingualism was the prime culprit in problems with language development. Having said that, all children whose speech is delayed should be assessed by a doctor and potentially a speech-language practitioner. Keep in mind that if your child has hearing or speech-language problems it is best to deal with professionals that are supportive of bilingual families.
Also important to point out is that when children are learning to speak they make mistakes in all areas of language. By “mistake” I mean something that adults usually don’t do (e.g. calling a cat a “dog”, saying “I wented”). 3 year olds have certainly not got it all sorted out. No matter how many languages your child is learning, you can expect pronunciation mistakes, at least until they’re about 6 or 7 years old. Do not expect “perfection” from small children and don’t fall into the teacher role of correcting them.
3. Bilingual children end up mixing the two languages
Mixing languages is really not as harmful as you think. To those unfamiliar with bilingualism, it is simply proof that the child can’t really tell the languages apart.
Most children who are raised bilingual do tend to mix as they try to sort out both languages. Moreover, one of the languages often has a stronger influence on the child than the other. This tends to happen to kids who have a smaller vocabulary in the minority language and so they may draw on words from the majority language when needed.
Most experts agree that mixing is temporary. Eventually it goes away as a child’s vocabulary develops in both languages and when they have more exposure to each of the languages.
All bilingual speakers of all ages mix their languages though. It happens to the best of us. This process is also known as code-switching. A perfect example is the widespread use of Spanglish (mixing English and Spanish), especially within the Latino community in the United States.
Remember that children model what they see and hear, so if your child lives in an environment in which mixing languages is the norm, expecting your children not to do this is quite unrealistic.
4. I missed the boat to raise my child bilingual. It is too late
Well, one thing is for sure, it is never too late- or too early- for that matter, to introduce your child to a second language.
So what is the best time? Well, according to experts the optimal time seems to be from birth to 3 years- exactly when a child is learning his first language.
The next best time for learning a second language appears to be when kids are between 4 and 7 years old, because they can still process multiple languages on analogical paths. So basically, kids at this age build a second language system alongside their first language and learn to speak both languages like a native.
If your child is older than 7 and you’ve been thinking about raising him bilingual, do not worry, you’re still on time. The third best time for learning a second language is from about age 8 to puberty. However, after puberty, studies show, new languages are stored in a separate area of the brain, so children have to translate or go through their native language as a path to the new language.
5. Children’s brains are like sponges, and they’ll become bilingual in no time.
Although it is certainly easier for children to learn a new language it never actually happens at the speed of light. It is unrealistic to expect your child to learn Spanish just by watching countless episodes of Paw Patrol on television.
Don’t make learning a language a chore. However, introducing a second language to your child does require some kind of structure, but most importantly, consistency, whether it’s through day-to-day conversation or giving instructions. The main idea is to expose our children to language learning in meaningful and interesting ways that are connected to real life.
What if my child refuses to speak my native language?
Certainly food for thought! It is a common phenomenon that if a child is brought up in a place with a strong community language, that he or she rejects the minority language. My own daughter, also raised in a bilingual household, rejected Spanish for quite a while. It really got me thinking. What are we doing wrong? It occurred to me that if this happens, it is probably because we failed to provide the need for the language. After all, I do speak her other native language (Dutch), fluently. As parents we need to think about our relationship with our child and our desire for them to learn a language. I was really stubborn about wanting my daughter to learn Spanish, so I stuck it out, kept speaking in Spanish even though she would reply mostly in Dutch. Just as I was thinking about giving it up, she began speaking Spanish to me again. As a parent it is important to accept the fact that we cannot control all of our children’s life experiences. They will be their own people and make their own life, which will be different from our lives. Therefore, accepting language shifts is also a part of accepting generational differences. Don’t try to control the environment too much, and if things go wrong, be accepting and caring.
So to conclude, however complicated your family linguistic situation is, always be calm and relaxed with your children and do whatever comes naturally. Remember that children are resilient, but they are sensitive to tensions of all sorts. So make sure you take it easy 🙂
Krashen, S.D. (1996) Under Attack: The Case Against Bilingual Education. Language Education Associates (3rd edition). ISBN: 0965280829.
Pearson, B.Z. (2008) Raising a Bilingual Child. Living Language (1st edition). ISBN: 978-1-4000-2334-9
Picture courtesy of http://www.raisesmartkid.com