4. Myths and facts about bilingualism (part 1)
Welcome to our fourth appointment of Multilingualism matters!
In this article and in the following one, we are going to discuss some common beliefs concerning bilingualism (and multilingualism). During the past years, linguists have tested scientifically much of what we commonly believe about language learning. As we will see, some of our thoughts about bilingualism have turned out to be based on myths. These myths can be sometimes harmful because they can lead us on wrong paths, preventing us from making the most effective decisions for our families. In some countries, being bilingual is still considered as a deviation from the norm. Moreover, most prejudices come from applying a monolingual vision to the bilingual development. Today we are going to discuss five myths.
Myth 1: Learning two languages is more difficult than learning just one language.
Fact: Research on the cognitive aspects of bilingualism shows that children are perfectly able to learn two (or more) languages simultaneously, without particular cognitive difficulties. The human brain is perfectly capable of dealing with two or more languages right from birth. If children hear enough of both languages, and if they communicate with adults and peers, they will pick them up.
Many parents are concerned about their children learning more languages at the same time. These worries are probably due to how we, as adults, learn foreign languages. Anyone thinking about language development in a child, is amazed at how quickly language acquisition takes place. However, this is in contrast with the way adults learn a new language, which can be sometimes a painfully slow process that never produces complete fluency. Please have a look at the second article of this column: “Children are little geniuses” to find out more.
Myth 2: Bilingual children start talking later than monolinguals.
Fact: Some children are late talkers. This is true of children growing up with one, two or more languages. Usually children who learn two languages should begin talking at the same time as those who are learning just one. However, it can happen that some children start later. There is no need to worry. Language delay usually means that the child is unconsciously trying to make rules about how the languages work.
There is no evidence that this kind of delay has any long-term effects on the child’s speech. It is nonetheless important to observe, if there are problems with language development in every child, whether she is exposed to one language, two languages or more. If you are concerned about your child’s language development, it may be prudent to contact a speech therapist, but be sure that he or she has experience with bilingual and multilingual children. It can be sometimes difficult to distinguish between a normal delay, and a language problem for experts, too. Therefore, it is extremely important that the speech therapist is well informed about bilingual / multilingual language development.
Myth 3: Mixing both languages is a sign that the child has not mastered either language.
Fact: A mixed language is something that many parents in bilingual families typically fear, but recent research shows that we shouldn’t worry too much. Bilinguals sometimes switch back and forth between languages within a conversation, and sometimes they mix languages in the same sentence, or even in the same word. These situations are very common and natural for bilingual speakers, child or adult.
Research on ‘code-switching’ shows that bilingual children, like bilingual adults, often switch from one language to another in order to achieve particular communicative effects. For example, even if they are talking in language A, they may switch to Language B to report something that somebody said, if the speech they are reporting was originally in language B. Or they may switch because of the topic they are talking about. This kind of code-switching takes place most often when talking to other bilinguals. Furthermore, when a child is mixing languages, this is not considered a sign that she is confused with her language. Research shows that code-mixing is not random, but generally obeys a remarkably strict grammar.
Myth 4: Learning two languages is more (or too) difficult for children with a language disorder, and if we remove (or concentrate on) one language, this will help the child.
Fact: Research evidence confirms that, no specific learning difficulties or language disorders are caused by bilingualism. Bilingualism neither delays nor harms a child’s language development.
New research is emerging about children with a variety of language difficulties, who are exposed to more than one language. The comparison between bilingual children with language impairments, and monolingual children with similar language impairments, shows that the addition of an extra language doesn’t cause any differences or extra burden for the child. Bilingual children with ‘specific language disorder’, for example, face the same challenges as monolingual children with the same disorder, but not any extra problem or difficulties. Research in the field of clinical linguistics shows that if a child has difficulty in one language, she will struggle with the other, too. But, it is important to notice that removing one language will not make learning the remaining language easier for the child.
The attitude of leaving out the home language, for example, in immigrant families, is not supported by research. Rather, a strong basis in a child’s home language has been found to help a child learn a second language. Sometimes, when parents find out that their child has a language delay, they feel they should stop speaking their home language to her. If they live in a foreign country, they might feel that their child has to learn the language spoken in that country, and that their home language is not a necessity in the community. Other parents, however, wonder if they should stop speaking their home language, even if they are not fluent or comfortable in the majority language themselves.
Experts advise that, one needs to be very carefully when deciding to remove a language. Limiting the communication to only one language, whereas before the child had access to two languages, could lead to emotional difficulties. It can reduce the child’s capacity and quality of communication with the family and the community. It could also impact the child’s sense of identity, as language is strongly linked to emotion and affection. Children who don't speak their first language at home, are at risk for incomplete learning, and this can affect how well they learn a second language. Indeed, a strong knowledge in the home language works as a foundation for second language learning.
Myth 5: Young children soak up languages like sponges.
Fact: At birth, we are all well equipped to acquire a language, but we still have to learn it from someone, that is, from the members of the community in which we live. Although children seem to have an easier time learning languages than adults, we should not underestimate the importance of social interaction. A child sitting in front of a TV screen, and watching cartoons in a foreign language, will not learn that language. Every child needs constant, rich exposure to both languages in order to become bilingual. She needs a rich linguistic environment, if we want her to master the full range of functions and styles of her mother tongue/s.
Find out more:
§ Harding-Esch Edith and Riley Philip (2003). The Bilingual Family. A handbook for parents. Cambridge University Press.
§ Grosjean François (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Harvard University Press.