Debunking common myths about raising bilingual children

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Raising a child bilingually does not cause language learning difficulties. www.shutterstock.com

by Mark Antoniou

ARC Research Fellow, MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development, Western Sydney University

By the age of two, children are typically able to say a few hundred words. My son, Alexander, was able to understand almost everything in both languages – Greek and English – but he could say only six words.

Our concerns grew as we watched younger kids overtake his speaking ability. Like many parents, we questioned if we were doing something wrong (even experts can’t escape the fear and guilt that comes with being a parent).

A number of enduring myths surround bilingualism, such as that it causes language delays and cognitive impairments.

However, research shows that raising a child bilingually does not cause language learning difficulties. Any lag in language development is temporary, so parents shouldn’t worry!

Here are some more common myths debunked:

Raising your child bilingually can cause a delay in development

Not true. In fact there are numerous advantages, such as improved executive function(mental planning), metalinguistic awareness (the ability to think about language as abstract units), mental flexibility (processing information adaptively) and creative thinking.

Bilingual children will generally meet developmental milestones within the normal range of language development, but may in some cases be towards the tail end (which was exactly the case with Alexander).

Bilingual children lag behind their peers and won’t catch up

This is a contentious issue, as there is considerable variability within bilingual children. Some children will not show any lag at all.

It has been suggested that a temporary lag may stem from having to accommodate two language systems within the same brain, but these children will catch up within a few months (note that this is not the same as a language delay).

But more research is needed to understand the exact mechanisms that are responsible.

My child will confuse the two languages

False. Although there is some controversy concerning when the languages become separated.

It was long thought that the two languages are fused at first and begin to separate when the child is around five. Recent evidence suggests that the languages may separate a lot earlier than was previously thought.

For example, bilingual children as young as 10-15 months babble differently depending on who they are interacting with (for example, English babbling sounds to the mother, and French babbling sounds to the father).

This suggests that babies are sensitive to who they are talking to from a very young age. This is probably a precursor of code-switching (when bilinguals use two languages within the same utterance).

Five tips for parents raising a child bilingually

  1. Be encouraging and patient as you would with any infant, and be aware that a bilingual child faces a tougher task than one learning only a single language.
  2. It is very important that both languages serve a functional purpose. Language is, after all, a tool for communication. If the child does not need to use the other language, they will probably stop using it. So, it is important to consistently place the child in situations that necessitate the use of both languages, and ideally with a variety of speakers. Doing so will develop robust speech categories in each language and ensure that they learn to process speech efficiently – which will aid both listening and talking.

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