Raising Bilingual Children: Fact or Fiction?
by Christina Bosemark, founder of the Multilingual Children's Association
"Doesn't she speak English? Oh, I see -- both Swedish and
English. Doesn't that get awfully confusing? Swedish, you said -- when
will she use that?" Get used to hearing these kinds of things. You'll
get opinions from the barista at Starbucks, your mother-in-law, even
your neighbors and strangers on the street. Remember, being a trendsetter
always ruffles some feathers, and the best way to deal with unsolicited
advice (other than running for the door) is to know the facts for yourself.
Here are the most persistent myths on raising bilingual children.
"Your child will be confused by learning more than one language."
This belief is prevalent in monolingual countries and has far more
politics than science to back it up. Rest assured that your child's little
brain has more than enough neurons firing to cope with two languages (or
even more) without frizzing out. On the contrary, decades of research in
countless studies actually show significant cognitive advantages to being
multilingual. And what about the experience of millions of families around
the world where multilingualism is the norm, not the exception? Just look
at Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, and Finland -- to mention a few.
"I can see two languages, maybe, but more than that is too much."
Considering how much babies have to learn in their first years of life,
another language really doesn't add much to the load. As long the child is
getting regular interactions in the second (or third) language, there won't
be problems. There is a reason why a two-year old child has fifty percent
more synapses than an adult! Also, even if your child does not end up
speaking all the languages, don't underestimate the value of a passive
language, i.e. understanding it but not yet speaking it. If you already
understand a language it is magnitudes easier to learn it later in school
or as an adult, compared to someone who'd never heard it before. So, even
'just' understanding another language is most definitely not a wasted effort.
"Your kid is going to get all these languages mixed up."
It is true that some mixing will occur, but that is both harmless and
temporary. As the child builds her vocabulary in each language, this
phenomenon automatically disappears. How many monolingual children
automatically fix mistakes after correct usage has been learned? For
example, children begin by saying things like "Me want," when they mean
"I want." And how many of them are still saying "Me want," at five?
Eventually, the multilingual child learns correct usage in the same
fashion as any other child. If you don't mix languages in your own
conversation, it'll make it much simpler for your child to remain
consistent as well.
"Why start now? Later your kid will pick it up in no time."
For all those who think it's a huge intellectual burden on your child
to grow up with multiple languages, there'll be those who will tell you
how easy it is. "Just go to a Spanish playgroup once a week, you don't
have to be so strict about speaking it yourself to her all the time."
Highly unrealistic. Studies indicate that children need exposure to
a different language about one third of their waking hours to become
actively bilingual. They'll likely understand a lot with less interaction,
but they probably won't be able to speak it themselves. Learning a
second language is simple for children, relative to adults, but in
the beginning they actually need to hear a word thousands of times
before it sticks -- unless it's a bad word, then miraculously you
only have to say it once…
"Reading and writing in several languages? Some kids can't even
handle that in one language."
It's true that many children have difficulties reading and writing
well. However, reading and writing is a 'coding / decoding' process
and is not linked to the number of languages a child speaks, as such
-- although it could involve multiple alphabets, and then be a bit
more work. Interestingly enough, access to multiple languages actually
makes it easier for children to understand the nature of language
itself, which, in turn, improves overall literacy skills. Research
supports what many parents have long felt: that multilingual children
have better-developed linguistic understanding.
Finally, if you are in a hurry or find that politely ignoring the
opinions thrown your way doesn't work, you can always ask if they
think Einstein's intellect suffered growing up with both German and
Italian. And, he didn't start talking until he was three years old
either, but he certainly seemed to make up for lost time!
So, are there no drawbacks or disadvantages at all to raising a
bilingual child, then? Sure there are, but probably not what you'd expect.
What those are and how you deal with them you can find out in the next
article in this series: Raising Bilingual
Children: The Snags.
About the author:
Christina Bosemark is the founder of the
Multilingual Children's Association,
your web-guide to raising bilingual children with expert advice, parent
discussions, resource directory and articles. She is also mother of two
trilingual daughters and co-founder of the Scandinavian immersion school in
Other articles in this series
Links to websites with information
and advice about raising bilingual/multilingual children