Last week we took a look at three key misconceptions which many people – teachers and parents alike – can carry. This week we’ll look at three more, talking not only about what the misconceptions are, but also WHY they can be damaging, and what we can do to adjust our expectations!
Bilingual children are equally good at both languages
This misconception is built on a faulty premise – that bilingual speakers should be equally as good at speaking each of their languages as a monolingual speaker is at speaking theirs. The idea that bilinguals should be the same as monolinguals in both their languages has persisted and leads to children being regarded as less proficient if they are not this idealised ‘balanced bilingual’.
The fact is that balanced bilinguals are extremely rare because almost all bilinguals use their languages in different contexts and for different purposes. An example of this contextual fluency might be a German-speaking parent who has never cooked with their child; the child is unlikely to have a well developed culinary vocabulary in German.
What we can take away from righting this misconception is that part of a parent’s job in language planning is to consider what purposes and contexts they would like their child to have for each language, and to plan for that to be possible.
Children never lose the first language that they learn
This is absolutely not true; children can and do lose languages, and they can lose them quite easily.
This is possibly the most important misconception to highlight, because it can often lead internationally-living parents to be too relaxed about language planning. I have met many children living abroad who have little ability to understand or use the language they first heard because their parents started using English in the home, feeling it was easier. How much language they lose will depend on when they moved, but certainly while some can still understand the language they either can’t or won’t speak it. Others have limited understanding, or have even lost the ability to understand altogether.
Loss of the mother-tongue is not irreparable, but the older a child is and the more complete the loss, the less likely it is that they will ever regain it to what could be considered ‘native speaker’ standards.
Bilingual children speak later than monolingual children
In fact, bilingualism does NOT negatively affect development. It’s certainly true that both languages will develop at different rates, and that In the first years, because children are gaining language skills mainly from their parents/caregivers, it is likely that they will have different vocabulary in each language, depending on interactions and how the language is used. However, as their language systems continue to develop they will begin to extrapolate from one language to another, meaning that, given the right exposure, children can have the same fluency in both languages that a monolingual child can have in one.
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