Busted: 10 Myths About Raising Bilingual Children

While more than 4 billion people speak at least 2 languages, there are lots of misconceptions floating around bilingualism. Sneaky ideas instilling doubt in your mind.

Bilingual road signs: to make sure you don’t get lost!

When considering raising your children with 2 or more languages, whether you’re bilingual or not, you may wonder:

  • Am I doing the right thing for my children?
  • Is it worth the effort?
  • How will this affect their well-being?
  • Am I asking too much from them?

It’s important to address those issues because if you believe them in the first place, you could

  1. refrain from transmitting your own language to your children, cutting them from their roots
  2. prevent them from learning a new language, the local language for example, limiting their own experience and ability to communicate with local people
  3. deprive them from a competitive edge later on, when looking for a job

Ready for busting the myths about bilinguals?

 Myth #1. “If I raise my children in 2 languages, they won’t be able to speak any of them properly!”

Wrong!

The rule is simple: the more exposure, the better. This means that each language should be heard and spoken as much as possible every day.

Here are some examples of how you can cater to this need.

  • having many conversations
  • or with little babies, lots of monologues, talking and describing every single thing you do
  • reading books
  • playing games
  • listening to music
  • watching movies

While exposure is essential, do not underestimate the emotional factor: it should remain fun and not forced!

Myth  #2. “If I raise my children in 2 languages, they will start to speak later in life compared to children exposed to only one language.”

Not necessarily!

The American Speech Language Hearing Association mentions that most bilingual children exhibit the same abilities than monolingual children:

* saying their first words (mummy, daddy) around 1 year old
* having 2-3 word phrases (“my book”) around 2 years old

Are you worried because other children at the daycare are already babbling while your child remains desperately silent? I had the experience but I trusted my children and their abilities.

Each person is different. Speaking a little later does not mean that your child has a mental problem or suffers from a bilingual environment. Not at all.

Compare it with walking or being potty trained.

I know, young mothers are particularly sensitive to those milestones. Especially with the first child. I was like that too. We want to be reassured that everything is fine: motivity, coordination, intellectual faculty.

But in reality? Saying the first words at 10 months or 13 months does not matter. Who will ask in 10 years’ time when your children started to walk, talk, go to the potty?

Sometimes, when introducing a second language a little later, a child may not speak for a while. This is perfectly normal.
When I taught French in Belgium to a 5 year old girl, already raised bilingually (Chinese and Dutch), she did not say a word of French for 3 months. She listened but never wanted to repeat anything. And then her parents took her for a trip to France. They were astonished to hear her proudly saying to the waiter “Bonjour, je m’appelle Emilie!”

 Myth #3. “If my children learn two languages at the same time, they will mix languages”

No…… and yes.

Let me clarify. If your children are enough exposed to both languages, they’ll clearly identify the words and the structure of each language. This language differentiation will occur around the age of 2 years according to Ellen Bialystok in her book “Language processing in bilingual children”.

However, your child will probably borrow words or expressions from one language and use it in the other. It’s a well-known phenomenon, called code-switching by the specialists.

In our family, it happens all the time. We try to refrain from it but it just comes so naturally. Why does this happen?

Why would you say “N’oublie pas de mettre tes “shoes”? Because “shoes” in French is “chaussures”.

  1. It’s a longer word. You need to articulate and change the position of your mouth to pronounce it. When you speak, you want to be quick.
  2. Sometimes, it’s just the first word coming to your mind. Retrieving from your memory the equivalent in the other language would take a few extra milliseconds… too late.
  3. Or there is a special connotation in a language, not present in the other one. I remember we used very often the Dutch expression “2 handjes op één buik” (these 2 persons are like “2 hands on a belly”) to qualify close friends because the image is so powerful.
  4. You also switch words to get attention or because they have such an emotional charge. What do you think of “I love la haute couture” vs “I love high sewing”?

 Myth #4. “If my children are raised bilingually, they’ll be more likely to stutter”

False!

A study conducted by University College London concludes “bilingual speakers were not found to be more at risk of stuttering than monolingual speakers.”

Myth #5. “If my children are raised bilingually, they’ll be able to speak perfectly in both languages.”

Nope!

Don’t take it for granted. The key factor is exposure. If there is a big discrepancy in exposure between 2 languages, your child will become what scientists call a “dominant bilingual”. He/she will be more fluent in one language, the dominant language compared to the other.

Myth #6. “If my children are raised bilingually, they’ll have problems to read.”

Wrong!

Speaking and listening to several languages do not damage the ability of your child to read. The question is rather: “In which language will my child learn how to read?”

My advise is to let your child learn how to read in the language spoken at school. He/she’ll get the most support there.

“But what if we just moved? The school and the language are both new!”

Follow the previous tip but lower your expectations. Allow time for your children to settle and to process all the information. Secure their emotional well-being. The academic performance will catch up. I have a personal experience with my younger son who was not reading fluently in Dutch before we left for Australia. I was worried and thought he would be completely confused with other spelling rules. It took him a month to speak English and a few more weeks to read properly!

Myth #7. “If my children are raised bilingually, they’ll be bicultural.”

Not automatically!

Speaking a language and knowing the culture are 2 different things. Because culture is not only food, language and clothes. Do you remember the iceberg model?

The most important things are hidden: myths, thought patterns, values and beliefs. This is why it’s so important to interact with local people, visit the country, learn the folklore and the proverbs, study the history and the local customs.

Myth #8. “I’d better wait that my children have mastered one language before introducing a new one.”

No, if you want your children to learn several languages, the sooner the better.

Myth #9. “If I’m not speaking my mother tongue to my children, they’ll get the same strong accent and make the same mistakes as me”

Wrong.

I’m a living example. My mother is French but her mother tongue is alsatian, a dialect from the Alsace region (closely related to German). She’s rolling the “r” and Alsatians are famous for speaking with a strong accent, using “ch” for “j” or “f” for “v” when speaking French. Because I had enough exposure to French outside of home, I never picked up the accent.

Myth #10. “If my children are bilingual, they’ll be behind at school.”

False!

In this case, what do you think of Barack O’Bama who spent a few years in Indonesia during his childhood? Do you think that 2/3 of the world population would allow their children to be dunces?

My children are trilingual and 2 of them are only 9 years old. None of them is struggling at school. It’s a gift and I can’t be grateful enough for the conditions which enabled this to happen.

“As a hawk flieth not high with one wing, even so a man reacheth not to excellence with one tongue.”
Roger Ascham                 Click to tweet

Do you have other concerns about raising your children with 2 or more languages? Speak your mind in the comments.

References:
Bilingual by choice, Virginie Raguenaud
email

Comments

  1. Fran west says:

    I am English/French bilingual; degree in French and 12 years living in France. I still make mistakes with agreements  because when i began learning French at age 11, no-one pointed out the importance of genders. My daughters, aged 10 and 25 respectively, have been raised with both languages. The former makes more mistakes with the simple past tense in English than with French verb conjugations. We all struggle with maths!

    The bottom line is, learning anything well requires a thorough grounding in the basics and persistent, consistent practice. There is no magic wand. I compare language learning to building a house; foundations, walls, roof to which the individual adds rooms and interior design themselves according to their abilities and tastes.

    Make it natural and normal and fun for your children to be bilingual and you will arm them well. Force and pressurise them to feel like performing monkeys and you risk destroying their willingness to learn anything. Hence, I believe, the myths.

    Hope this helps.

    • Thanks a lot for sharing your experience. I love your image comparing learning a new language to building a house. I used this “house analogy” a few months ago in oneof my articles. The purpose was to describe how children could visualize their identity (from all the different countries and cultures they had been living in). As language is part of the culture, it definitely belongs to the house model! I had not thought specifically about the process of learning a language in this analogy. Thanks for pointing out.

      2012/11/7 Disqus

  2. Thanks for a great article. I have three boys now 15,13 &10yrs. The 10 year old speaks between french and english like it is a normal everyday situation. My 13yrs can speak, read and write well not perfectly but that doesn’t matter he has more than the basics and can improve himself at any time. My 15 yrs is just lazy! We are an Australian family and it was me who wanted to give the kids the gift of another language and I did lots of research before starting, they were between 5-0 ages when I started so the benefits are obvious. I obtained a C1 diploma level myself and am always trying to improve my vocabulary and grammaire. I think that if you want to have another language that you must be prepared for the work and in my case it was double because french is not my maternal language. Learning another language has opened up a cultural door for my family and we have enjoyed the journey immensely. It is still continuing.

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