Bilingualism is not the problem if…

People (unfortunately, sometimes including specialists) often like to lay the blame for language delays or special educational issues on the doorstep of bilingualism. A child having more than one language is seen, too often, as a “problem” and therefore language is seen as the cause of other “problems”. And of course, if bilingualism is the cause, then the answer is monolingualism – taking away one or more languages is seen as a quick fix for a many problems

Here is a short list of myths about bilingualism and language/educational development:

1. You are told that your toddler “doesn’t have enough words” and may be delayed because they are bilingual. Everyone knows that bilingual children start talking later, right? Wrong! Bilingual children do not, on average, develop language later than monolinguals. What they do have is a different vocabulary development trajectory. Bilingual kids don’t develop a word in each of their languages for the same object, at the same time. They develop words from the contexts in which they hear them. So, if the Spanish-speaking father feeds the child every day, they are likely to have mainly Spanish words for eating-related concepts. If the child goes to day care in Dutch, they learn appropriate Dutch vocabulary for that situation, and not in Spanish. So what often happens is that people (parents, professionals) look at the number of words *in one language* and declare that the child is slow, or delayed. In fact, until about four years old, you need to look at the total of words in all languages to get an accurate count. After this age, most bilinguals do actually know “all the words” (or most of them) in both languages, which would effectively mean that they have DOUBLE the vocabulary of a monolingual child (but nobody ever talks about that…).

2. Your child is diagnosed with a speech/language delay and you are told that bilingualism is the cause. It is not true that being raised bilingual causes a speech delay. If a child has a delay in speech and/or language, they would have that same delay even if they were only being raised with one language. Speech and language delays can have many causes, mostly neurological or physiological, but bilingualism is never a cause of delay. If you have a child with a diagnosed delay, the best path is therapy through both languages, so that they can improve in both languages. Dropping a language is (almost) never the right choice. 2Languages2Worlds has a good research-based set of information on these topics.

3. Your child is diagnosed with special educational needs (ADHD, ASD, PDD-NOS or other). You are told that having two languages (or more) is “too much” and it is affecting your child’s behaviour and is the cause, or contributing to, their diagnosis. Again, not true. It is true that sometimes bilingual children struggle with communication in one of their languages, or show frustration in the process, and act out. It is not true that having more than one language causes systemic behavioural or neurological issues. It’s also not true that removing a language will fix the “problem” (hearing a theme here?). It is true that you need to find the right professional to work with a bilingual child in terms of therapy, so that you know that the “whole child” is being seen, rather than only one side.

4. Children with special educational needs can’t become bilingual, it’s too hard, so don’t even bother. And again, not true. Kids with a wide variety of SEN (Down’s Syndrome, ASD, other cognitive functioning diagnoses) can and do become bilingual, in situations where they need both of their languages. It’s a very hard subject to research, because every child with SEN is completely individual in their talents and challenges and unique possibilities, but some preliminary research on children with Down’s Syndrome has shown that in fact they can do just as well with two languages as with one. (see more information here 

In short, threats of delays and disturbances should no longer be a part of the discussion on bilingualism. We need to spread the word that becoming bilingual is not harmful, and that it does not cause our children to be delayed or troubled. We need to recognize that bilingual children are as likely as monolingual children to struggle with speech or language delays or with educational challenges. Not more likely, as likely. And we need to recognize that, like for any other child facing a challenge, there is not an easy solution, and certainly removing a language is not an easy solution.

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