To Italian version of "Bilinguismo e Multilinguismo"

5. Myths and facts about bilingualism (part 2)

Welcome to our fifth appointment of Multilingualism matters!

Last time we discussed five myths about bilingual development in children. We understood that bilingualism is not a cause of language disorders, and that children need frequent social interactions with both languages. This time, we are going to break down some other misconceptions, in order to understand more about this fascinating topic.

Myth 6: Bilinguals are like two monolinguals in one person.

Fact: Bilinguals’ language use is deeply embedded in context, and a bilingual profile may change constantly over time, since bilingualism is not static but dynamic. We need to think about  bilingualism as a complex psychological and social-cultural, linguistic behavior, which has multi-dimensional aspects. If we consider how and when bilinguals (and multilinguals) use their languages, we’ll find out that they use them in different contexts. And for this reason, we might expect a different proficiency in the languages. Therefore, bilinguals are NOT like two monolinguals in one person.

As we have seen in the first article of this column, many definitions have been proposed over the years, and some of them seem to derive from an idealized view of bilingualism: a bilingual is regarded as someone who speaks two languages perfectly. However, some differences between bilingual and monolingual children have been observed in different studies. Young bilingual children may have smaller vocabularies in one or both languages in comparison to monolingual children. This is to be expected, because bilingual children tend to learn their languages in different contexts, and the vocabulary they acquire in each language reflects the context in which that language is learned and used. The small differences that distinguish bilinguals from monolinguals are trivial, in comparison to the advantages bilingual children have from knowing more than one language.

Myth 7: A child needs first to learn a language well, and then she can learn a second one.

Fact: Studies conducted over the past thirty years show that second language acquisition is easier and immediate when it starts from birth, or at least in childhood. There is no need to wait. Children are able to acquire more than one language if they feel the need to communicate in that language.

As we have seen in the second article of this column, the most important requirements are: a rich linguistic environment, which means a good amount of language input; and the possibility for the child to interact with somebody in the targeted language. However, every family needs to consider its specific goals and needs, when deciding to introduce a new language.

Myth 8: Some languages are not worth learning, I'd rather concentrate on more useful languages.

Fact: Bilingualism gives some advantages to children and adults. This advantage is gained no matter what languages we speak. As we have seen in the third article, having different competing linguistic systems in our brain, helps us develop more mental flexibility. Our brain doesn’t care which languages we are speaking, it’s the regular use of languages, and the constant switching from a language to another that makes the difference. Therefore, every language is worth learning!

Sometimes, immigrant families decide to leave the home language and speak only the majority language with their children. They believe, this will help the child integrate better into the community, and learn faster the language. However, dropping one language might lead to emotional problems. Bilingualism in immigrant families should be considered as a resource, it should be recognized and supported at all levels. For example, fostering bilingualism in a school environment could be a valuable opportunity to encourage bilingualism in children.

Myth 9: Parents must be fluent in more than one language before raising a bilingual child. And those who do not speak a language perfectly will pass their errors and their accent on to their children.

Fact: Bilingualism has many different faces. If a child lives in a rich linguistic environment, she will learn one, two, or more languages. If parents are monolingual speakers of a language, their child can still grow up bilingual, for example, moving to another country and attending a school where another language is spoken.

However, if you live in a monolingual context, and you want to educate your child bilingually, you need to consider some rules. No matter how many languages you speak, you’re probably more comfortable using one language than the other, and you may wonder which language to use when speaking to your child at home. The best advice is, that each parent should speak with their children the language, that he or she speaks most fluently. If you do so, your child is exposed to a much wider vocabulary, and to correct grammar.

If you don’t speak the language, you can also learn a language as your children do, using activities and resources, providing a role model for your children as you guide them into the bilingual world. However, it would be important that the child feels the need to speak that language, and that she can hear it and talk it also with other people, for example attending a playground group.

Myth 10: There’s only one right way to raise a bilingual child.

Fact: Since bilingualism can be found in different places, and has many dimensions, there are also many ways to raise bilingual children. The most common way could be the so called OPOL method: One-Person-One-Language. This means that, each parent or caregiver consistently speaks only one language to the child. For instance, the father speaks his native French, while his wife speaks Dutch.

If you are monolingual parents living in a foreign country, you might use the method of One-Language-One-Location or Minority Language at Home: it simply means that everyone speaks the minority language at home, and the other language in other contexts. However, parents might be concerned when their child doesn't speak the community language on the same level as her monolingual peers. In this case, it is difficult not to worry. Therefore, parents might want to ensure the child receives enough input of both languages, by joining afternoon activities or intensifying language contact with the local community. Raising multilingual children is a flexible and highly personal practice, and everyone should find out which method works better for his own family’s needs and choices.

In the next article, we are going to discuss some practical tips to raise a child with more than one language. We are also going to discuss different ways to boost the minority language, when living in a country where people speak another language.


Find out more:

Interview with Francois Grosjean, professor emeritus at Neuchâtel University, Switzerland - here.

Interview with professor Antonella Sorace, an expert in Bilingualism working at the University of Edinburgh - here.



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