The Myths and Realities of Raising Bilingual Children

by multilingualmania on March 24, 2010

in Bilingual Myths and Misconceptions, bilingual parenting, Bilingualism

Author: R.K. Albers

Many bilingual parents shy away from introducing their children to a second language because of rumors that multilingualism stunts learning or requires parents to commit to a grueling language regimen.  In reality, raising your children to be bilingual will benefit them in terms of short term classroom success as well as long term college and career opportunities.  And it does not require a Ph.D in lingusitics or a master’s from a school online!  Read on to separate fact from fiction when it comes to multilingual families.

Myth:  A child should learn one language at a time

Reality:  Children under the age of ten are most receptive to dual language learning

Studies have shown that children as young as a few months old have the ability to discern between two or more languages.  Learning a second or third language at a young age is proven to enhance a child’s cognitive abilities, academic performance, and standardized test scores.

Myth:  At home dual language learning must follow a strict formula

Reality:  Consistency, not rigidity, is the key to raising bilingual children

There is no “right” or “wrong” path to bilingualism.  In some dual-parent households, each parent chooses to speak only his or her native language.  Other families prefer to exclusively practice a minority language at home to offset their children’s exposure to a majority language when at school or in public.  No matter what you choose, the most important thing is to commit to an approach and be consistent.

Myth:  Raising a bilingual child must begin at birth

Reality:  It is never too late to introduce a second or third language into your home

Many parents mistakenly give up on bilingual child rearing after a certain point because they fear it is too late.  While research shows that young children absorb languages most quickly, multilingualism has no expiration date.  Even retirees can learn and master a second or third tongue with regular practice and exposure.  Studies suggest that, regardless of age, a language learner needs at least 30% daily exposure to become fluent.

Myth:  Bilingual parents must be perfect linguists

Reality:  Bilingualism is about effective communication, not perfection

Although some bilingual parents go to great lengths in order to avoid mistakes, every day errors are natural and harmless.  Fluency is defined as the ability to communicate smoothly and effortlessly.  Parents who focus on developing each of the four language disciplines (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) are far more likely to be successful in cultivating a bilingual household than those who painstakingly pursue perfection.

Myth:  Bilingual families are a rare breed

Reality:  Multilingual households are commonplace throughout the world

The United States Census Bureau estimates that nearly 20% of Americans speak more than one language at home.  In Europe, close to half the population self-identifies as bilingual.  In other parts of the world, multilingualism is often the rule, not the exception.  Contrary to the misconception that bilingualism is polarizing, raising your child in a multilingual household will pave the way for a lifetime of enriching relationships and experiences.

About the Author: R.K. Albers is a freelance writer and translator living in Mexico, where she serves as a volunteer English teacher, computer instructor, and web designer for several social and environmental justice non-profit organizations. In her spare time, she loves to sustain and improve her bilingualism by reading novels and watching movies in Spanish.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Regina Camargo March 24, 2010 at 10:02 pm

Excellent!

DJ Morris March 25, 2010 at 4:23 am

As someone that came from a bilingual family himself, I found this post spot on! I especially relate to the learning of multiple languages…I spoke 6 languages by the age of 12.

Sandrine March 25, 2010 at 5:04 am

Love this post! My husband and I are bringing our kids trilingual – we’re a franco-english family living in Turkey, so we have not much choice. Our daughter speaks all three languages perfectly and our son who’s autistic has gone from being non-verbal to fluent in two of them and is now tackling the third. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who’ve told us we were going about language teaching the wrong way! All the myths you quote have been thrown at us at some time by people who didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. So thanks for this post!

isabella mori (@moritherapy) March 26, 2010 at 10:44 pm

i spent the first three years of my life being exposed to three languages (german, russian and french). it clearly was good for my brain. when we lived in south america, my son was fluently bilingual. in canada, we spoke german and english. and then something weird happened. when i threw out my ex husband, out with him went the bilingualism. my older daughter, even though she was fluently bilingual until she was seven, now hardly remembers a word in german, and my younger daughter, who theoretically could have the benefit of german, spanish and japanese in addition to english, is growing up with english only. when i got rid of my ex husband, i somehow also got rid of the bilingualism. i wonder whether other people have experienced that, too?

apart from that, i totally agree that the above are myths.

multilingualmania March 28, 2010 at 10:17 pm

Isabella, I had something similar happen. When I broke up with an ex, my Spanish disappeared for years! It’s interesting how with one person bilingualism can go poof!

Sandrine, your kids are so lucky! People will always spread all sorts of myths and we have to trust in what we are doing! Practically the whole world is bilingual, so it won’t hurt anyone!

cognitiveDilemma February 25, 2011 at 9:17 pm

I am all for bilingual education and bilingual experience, but does it really improve cognitive process, or does it leave a person more confused and unable to appreciate the full depth of a single model of his world? What specific research or developmental studies can be referenced besides good second-hand common sense assumption of some respectable writer or linguists who writes about but have not lived the role?

I personally believe that the experience and benefit may be different for each person, or it may even be different for the same person depending on what stage of development they were in when first exposed to a second language. So it cannot be said and generalized that a bilingual life is more enriching and that it causes to develop in a person, a cognitively superior ability.

I am a bilingual person, with 14 years of English education – starting when I was 9 after I moved to the States. However, to this day, I still feel like English is a hurdle and is constantly challenged every day listening to lectures, or watching some American television series. I still do not get the jokes and euphemism being thrown around so lightly and are often the source of applauds and laughs, especially the comedies.

The confusion some times leave me frustrated as I juggle to realized and render the complex and very different set of English grammars to my own language. I always wonder if this would be different and the benefit that everyone talked about of a higher cognitive ability would have been realized in me, had I started English earlier or were equally exposed to the native tongue and the English language.

It is possible maybe, that the limitations of my English understanding stems from my inability to fully comprehend my own native tongue because I believe that language is not merely words with meaning, but that it provides the framework which we perceived, modeled, and put the world around us into perspective. And so, as I transitioned from
a murky model of the world through my native language, as 9 year old, I perhaps was not ready to shift into another language that was going to offer a completely different view and model of the world based on the different grammars and structures that the second language (English) is built upon.

So if bilingualism is to be enriching, I believe that the native language where the child was initially given framework of the world, should not be left to lag behind or neglected. It must be developed as rigorously as the second language. Otherwise, the child will grow up either confused, or have a very ineffective communication ability –maybe for both language!

I personally work to sponsor bilingualism in my own home country, to help the indigenous children preserve their language. So I am in 100% supports of bilingualism, but having experience the difficulty of such a life, I am adamant that if the endeavor is to succeed in creating a effective communicator and provides for an enriching experience, the native tongue must never neglected and push aside in favor of the mainstream language.

multilingualmania February 28, 2011 at 10:02 am

Jim Cummins has talked about the “threshold” situation, where higher cognitive abilities tend to exist when the person is highly proficient in both languages. Someone who has limited proficiency in their second language, with the second language being neglected or lagging behind, might not have those higher cognitive abilities that research studies seem to suggest. It’s unfortunate that in many cases a person’s first language is just completely replaced with the second, and in many cases the person has limited proficiency in both languages. If we want to reap the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, we must also strengthen the primary language! However, not understanding jokes and some of the more nuanced aspects of social language and interactions wouldn’t necessarily mean that a person has not developed a higher metalinguistic understanding about languages–it just means that social language has either not been taught to the person (and they mainly learned the academic aspect of it) or the person hasn’t had much opportunity to practice the language in an interactive setting. I have the same problem with jokes in my second language, but I will also find myself having that situation in my primary language with people who might be from a different region in my country!

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