On this episode of Bilingual Avenue, I read an excerpt from my ebook The Essential Guide to Raising Happy Bilingual Children debunking seven myths about bilingual individuals. Members of the Bilingual Avenue Club get access to the book for free. The ebook is also for sale to Bilingual Avenue newsletter subscribers.
What are some of the common misconceptions about bilingual individuals?
Multilingualism causes language delays
When a child is learning two or more languages simultaneously parents, teachers and even pediatricians sometimes worry that this may lead to language delays in children. Yet this is certainly not the case! Researchers have observed children across the spectrum and have found that being multilingual does not cause additional delays or difficulties.
Children that are bilingual and do in fact demonstrate a speech or language problem, will show these same problems. Time and time again, the consensus has been that these speech problems are not caused by learning more than one language.
We must look at the totality of the vocabulary of a bilingual child in each of their respective languages. Looking at just one language is misleading because it will incorrectly seem that he or she has a smaller vocabulary than his or her monolingual peers. Yet their total vocabulary, which includes all languages, should be similar to their monolingual peers.
You may notice that your multilingual child utters his or her first words a bit later than children who are only learning one language yet bilingual children still produce their first word within the normal age range (11-15 months). Just like vocabulary is learned at the same pace as monolingual peers, grammar is also learned on the same time line as monolingual children.
If you do notice that your child is not meeting speech and language milestones as expected, I encourage you to consult a speech language pathologist that is experienced in working with multilingual children.
Multilingual children are often confused
A common misconceptions is that children will be confused if exposed to more than one language. This myth alone has led parents to delay the introduction of a second language just in case confusion can be avoided. The fact is that as early as six months of age, infants can pick up on differences between languages.
Young learners may not always know what we mean when we say we are speaking “English” but you will be amazed at how easily they can understand the concept of “Mommy words” and “Daddy words.” They are surprisingly able to associate language to individuals or specific intervals of time and are simply not confused when more than one language is introduced.
Bilinguals are equally proficient in each language
This is another common myth that is simply not true. As you will discover throughout this book, multilingual individuals are proficient in a given language based on how much they need to use that language in their day to day interactions. Some bilingual individuals can read and write very comfortably in both languages while others can only read and write in one of their two languages while using the second exclusively in conversation.
In many cases, bilingual individuals have one language that plays a more dominant role. The dominant language can change throughout the person’s life depending on age, community language, social environment and other factors. Equal levels of fluency in a language is NOT a requirement to be considered multilingual.
Only young learners can really learn a language
The root of this misconception can perhaps be traced to something called the Critical Period Hypothesis9. This theory indicates that the first few years of life are the time in which language develops and any language acquisition after this period is difficult. Yet this theory has been the subject of debate for many in the fields of linguistics and language acquisition.
Older children and adults who learn a language sequentially are still able to learn new languages and achieve fluency. In fact, some have a much easier time learning specialized vocabulary, for example, because they are already familiar with their own language system.
I speak from personal experience when I tell you that this is also just another myth! My real exposure to the English language began after my family moved to the United States and, therefore, my multilingual journey did not fully take its course until I was 13 years old. However, like many others who have moved before and after me, the absolute need to communicate in the community language led me to learn and become fluent in English.
What is important to keep in mind is that learning or teaching a language takes dedication, discipline and commitment. However, do not let age become an excuse for language learning for you or your children.
You should ONLY speak the community language at home
Depending on the dynamics of a family unit, parents may choose to implement a language strategy where only a minority language is spoken at home. At times, they may feel pressure from others to speak the community language instead.
Although this advice is now less common, many individuals unfamiliar with multilingualism, may suggest that in order for children to truly learn the community language they must be exposed to it at home as well. They argue that introducing a second language can actually be detrimental to a child’s language development. This just simply is not the case.
For some parents speaking the community language at home may not feel natural especially if they are not proficient in that language. In some cases, it may even reduce or diminish the quality of the communication with their children. Research has actually shown that children who have a strong foundation in a home language can more easily transition into a second language10. They are typically able to transfer many of the skills they have learned from their first language to others.
Therefore, it is important to note that it is not harmful for parents to choose to speak a language other than the community language in the home.
Multilingual individuals must have no accents in any of their languages
This is another common misconception. Having an accent is not an indicator of language fluency. Some multilingual individuals achieve great levels of fluency yet speak some or all of their languages with an accent. Some folks can show no signs of an accent yet have a limited knowledge of vocabulary and grammar. In many instances, the development of an accent or lack thereof depends on when and how an individual learned a language and not on their proficiency levels.
Most of the world is monolingual
Actually not at all! Estimates indicate that approximately 60% of the world, more than half, is multilingual. What is a not a myth is that even though many of us are in fact leading multilingual households we tend to feel alone on our journey. My hope throughout this book, the podcast and the overall Bilingual Avenue community is that we overcome that feeling of being alone on the journey and instead learn through each other’s experiences.
What about you? What myths have you ever wondered about?
To catch the show notes from today’s episode, head over to bilingualavenue.com/episode130
May you have fun travels on your language journey. Hope to see you again on the Avenue!
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