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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 onceā€¦

"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 San Francisco.

Other articles in this series

Links to websites with information and advice about raising bilingual/multilingual children

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