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07
MAR
2015

Debunked: Top 5 Myths About Raising a Bilingual Child

Bilingual ChildRaising kids to be bilingual has become trendy lately, but it has always been a hot topic for expat parents. For many parents, bilingualism is a sign of intelligence, and also gives children an advantage in their studies or future career opportunities. Research has shown that being bilingual can have other cognitive advantages as well, which is making many parents jump on the bilingual bandwagon.

But it wasn’t too long ago that many educators had misgivings about raising children in a bilingual or multilingual household. As a result, many families, especially immigrants, were encouraged to only use one language at home, as to not cause confusion and speech delays for children. Many parents living and working abroad also become discouraged when their children don’t speak to them in their native language anymore, and give up completely.

So what is really going on? What is the final word on raising your kids to be bilingual?

Here are 5 common myths about raising bilingual children, DEBUNKED!:

1.     Learning more than one language at a time confuses children. This is probably the most widely held and oldest myth about raising bilingual children. But research shows that from just days after birth, children can differentiate between two very different languages, like Arabic and French, but less so for similar languages, like Spanish and Portuguese. It doesn’t take long for them to also differentiate between similar languages over time.

2.    Bilingual children often experience speech delays. While its true that children in a bilingual home may take longer to speak, there is no evidence that this is a problem. In fact, research shows that children diagnosed with speech delays in monolingual households and multilingual households acquire language at the same rate. Unfortuantely, bilingual parents who are worried about a speech delay are often encouraged to stick to one language, which isn’t really necessary, nor a solution to any speech delays.

3.    Bilingual children mix the two languages and don’t understand the difference. Mixing languages is a natural part of multi-language acquision. Adults who have experienced this as an expat may be fluent in “Spanglish” or “Franglais” as they acquire a second language. When children do this, it is a sign that they are learning, and the mixing is only temporary. It is not a sign that they are confused by the languages, but rather they are able to switch between the two to express themselves more accurately. This is especially true for children of expat parents, who are surrounded by adults who are also mixing languages. It should not be seen as a failure or a disadvantage.

4.     If they didn’t learn it as a baby, it’s too late. It is widely known that the optimal age for a child to acquire a language is from birth to age 3. But in fact, studies show that up until the age of 10, children are still quite flexible and open to learning a second language. Until this age, children learn a language in parallel with their native language, almost like a second native language, and eventually speak like a native. However, after puberty, a second language is learned as a sort of translation of their native language. This information is stored in a different part of the brain than it would be for young children learning like a native speaker. That’s why it is even more difficult for adults to acquire a second language. But if you are thinking of raising your 7-year-old to be bilingual, it’s certainly not too late!

5.     Children are like sponges, so they can easily learn a language with little effort. While it’s true that children can acquire a language much more easily than a teenager or an adult, it doesn’t happen by magic. And, sorry, it doesn’t happen by sitting them in front of the television either! Language learning requires constant exposure, consistancy, and application to real-life experiences. Don’t give up halfway through when your child is mixing languages or speaking to you in the “wrong” language. This can be difficult for families living in their native country and trying to become bilingual. Music, conversations, English lessons, movies and e-learning are also great compliments to the bilingual path, but nothing compares to making the connection to everyday life.

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Were you raised in a bilingual environment, or are you raising your children to be bilingual?

Have you heard these myths from teachers or friends?

Do you think being bilingual is difficult for children?

We love to read your comments below!

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Comments

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April is an e-marketing specialist, English instructor and freelance writer living in Grenoble, France.
  1. Sarbari Ghosh Reply

    Like many other Indian children, I was encouraged to acquire three languages simultaneously. This did not cause any speech delay. My daughter, who is 9 now, had no problems acquiring a third language at age 2 years, when we moved to another city. Acquiring new languages posed no problem for either of us.

    • admin Reply

      I thought I was going to have problems teaching my kids three languages but now my 11 year old is completely trilingual and my 9 and 6 year olds understand all three languages and are getting there with speaking too.

  2. Kajal Senguptas Reply

    These are exactly the issues which I had when my granddaughter was born . My daughter ( Indian) has married a Frenchman. She insists on talking in an Indian language to the child. The kid speaks in French when she goes to creche and she is picking up English from a child she meets at the creche. This, when she has not completed her two years. Mind boggling and eye opener.

    • admin Reply

      Not really mind boggling because that’s the best age to do it. If you want your kids to speak more than one language, expose them to those languages at a very young age. There’s no more to it than that.

  3. Susan Brodar Reply

    My personal experience confirms that speaking more than one language to your children from birth is only an advantage for them as long as each adult sticks stubbornly to one language so that the child can associate that person with a language: e.g. Mum – English, Dad – Italian, Grandparents – German. Once they are teenagers they can mix the consolidated languages for practical reasons because some words convey a meaning in one language better than in another.

    • admin Reply

      I think it’s also important to insist that they speak to you in that language. Don’t react if they don’t speak the correct language. Wait for them to say what they are expressing in the language you speak to them. My kids speak to me in French even if I speak English to them because I never insisted.

  4. Karolin Reply

    Both my sister and I were raised in a bilingual household. Friends of our family were amazed to how at 2 years old we spoke Armenian with our mom and next second we turned to our dad and spoke Assyrian (which is a language on the other end of spectrum from Armenian) with our dad. So kids can learn as many languages as you can throw at them but you just have to be consistent and patient with them.

  5. Svetlana J. Lukic Reply

    I need to emphasise that I learnt English Methodology in 1977 in Serbia.
    In one of his lectures my Professor Naum Dimitrijevic said that the children from bilingual families could stammer.
    Later on I have never heard about that phenomenon. I met the children from bilingual families and I have not noticed mind
    boggling of that kind.

  6. Svetlana J. Lukic Reply

    I learnt English Methodology in 1977 and my Professor said that the children from bilingual families could stammer.
    I have never heard about that phenomenon afterward. So, there is no mind boggling.

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