Far more of the world’s population are bilingual than are not, but in the Western world this is not necessarily obvious, because a disproportionate number of families speak only one language (generally English). Because of this, there are a number of misconceptions around bilingualism which have sprung up, and I often receive questions about them, especially on this blog and in parent seminars. Here follow, then, my top five misconceptions around bilingualism and bilingual children in particular.
All children soak up language like a sponge
This is probably, in my experience, one of the most persistent misconceptions about bilingualism, and it is absolutely not true. The fact is that much like adults, children vary widely in their language learning journeys.
Clearly this misconception can be extremely damaging for children, because it can lead to adults making the assumption that because infants acquire language ‘like a sponge’, so should older children. This in turn leads to language decisions being made based on the presumed ‘effortlessness’ of language acquisition.
I have worked with families who have put their toddlers into daycare in a new language, fully confident that they will emerge two years later as fluent speakers, only to find that at the end of their time there, the child seems to have acquired little to no skill in the new language. Children react very differently to being dropped into situations such as these – some thrive and grow, others take longer to settle and some (in extreme cases) choose not to talk at all.
All these factors demonstrate the foolhardiness of expecting children of any age to be exactly the same in their language journey. Learning a new language takes time, effort and the right circumstances.
Earlier is better when introducing a second language
For clarity it is worth pointing out that, in general, when we refer to ‘early’ bilingual children, we are talking about children who are bilingual from before the age of two, as they are acquiring language for the first time. Late bilinguals, on the other hand, learn their second language after their primary language has developed.
The fact is that while we do know that the human brain is hardwired to learn language, we don’t yet know if it does this better between certain ages. It’s a hard question to tease out, by necessity of the fact that finding out the answer often involves working with very small children. Are they better at acquiring language because of an innate ability at that age, or because the environment in which they are immersed is better for learning languages? Also, with smaller children our expectations in terms of language are low – we get excited by simple structures and basic words. With older children, the time they have to learn a language is less (they are not immersed in it as a baby would be) but our expectations are much higher!
What we can say is that children who start in late immersion make faster progress than those who start in early immersion, probably because they are able to be active in their learning process. We also know that by the time children reach the end of secondary school, there is little statistical difference between those who started immersion education early and those who started later, other than in terms of accent (which does appear to be affected by age of acquisition).
Mixing languages around children is a problem
Parents often come to me with this worry, asking if they should have clear boundaries around which language is spoken where. They worry that it could be confusing for children to hear two different languages from the same person.
The answer to the question of whether mixing languages (both by parents and by children) is a problem is that children are far more flexible than we give them credit for! In fact, there are plenty of countries and cultures where children are raised in multilingual communities (such as India) and are well-used to hearing a parent or caregiver speaking two or more different languages.
An issue that can arise is when a minority language speaking parent starts to speak the majority language with their child. It isn’t the mixed input which causes the problem, but rather the fact that the less of a language a child hears, the less likely it is to develop properly! If allowed to become a habit, it can lead to a slippery slope in which the child actually becomes resistant to conversing in the minority language because they are less comfortable with it and less used to processing it.
Want to learn more?
The content of this blog post has been adapted from my latest book, Bilingual Families: A Practical Language Planning Guide, which can be found in any good bookstore or, alternatively from Amazon. If you have any further questions or would like to set up a meeting, please do contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org