Every now and then I hear a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes about raising bilingual children. Many of these are due to lack of knowledge; some people who live in monolingual environments simply haven’t heard of bilingualism and it’s advantages. This is why parents who raise bilingual or multilngual kids are often criticised even by loving and caring family members and friends.
Lack of knowledge often leads to stereotypes. If you have only met one bilingual toddler, who started to speak late, you may be prompted to think that all bilingual kids start to speak late. If there are several bilingual toddlers in your neighbourhood, you will see that there’s no rule; some speak late, others speak early, yet others are incredible chatterboxes. Every child has their own pace fore learning life skills, and bilingual or multilingual children are no exception.
Even my own two kids are totally different when it comes to language development. Andrés (5) started to speak late, he only used spare words until the age of 3,5 and mixed Polish and Spanish words in a single sentence. His speech dramatically improved when we moved from Spain to Poland and after a few months he became fluent in both languages. It was then I introduced English at home; he’s learning very quickly and doesn’t mix languages anymore.
Michał (3) started to speak early, he made complex sentences in both languages when he was 2,5 and he has a wide range of vocabulary. He goes to speech therapist, though, because he doesn’t pronounce words correctly in any of the three languages. He says „gu bob” instead of „good job”, ce papa” instead of „chcę się kąpać”. We joke that our little lazy boy „eats” endings of words like people in Andalusia do 🙂 ; his Spanish sounds Andalusian when he says „ta lueooo” rather than „hasta lluego” .J
What are the most common myths about multilingual children?
1) Multlingualism causes speech delay.
Npe. Some experts say that multilingual children may start to speak half a year later than their monolingual peers, but it’s not a fixed rule; I met two year olds who were fluent in two or three languages. While toddlers often know fewer words in both languages than kids who just speak one language, many preschoolers and older children have a wider range of vocabulary than monolingual kids and they find it easier to learn and memorize new expressions. So, if your bilingual child has a significant language delay and you’re concerned, don’t neglect that; there are lots of speech problems that are not related to bilingualism or multiligualism at all, and the earlier they are diagnosed, the better. Contact a good speech therapist who is familiar with bilingualism.
2) If your child starts to speak late, you must drop one of the languages
This stereotype is linked with the previous one and unfortunately it is so widespread among doctors and teachers that I’m surprised that fans of both myths don’t have a dedicated Facebook page 😉 Every now and then I read in different Internet groups that some parents from many parts of the world were advised to drop a minority language “to help the majority language development”.
On her website “Multilingual Parenting” Rita Rosenback explains parents that dropping a minority language is not beneficial for the majority language development and outlines several advantages of keeping a minority language at home. Bilingual children learn to speak in a different way than their monolingual peers and what may look like a speech delay, is just a different learning pattern. Moreover, speaking a second language gives children coginitive benefits, which will definitely contribute to their intellectual and emotional development.
What may happen if you DO drop a minority language? A few years ago I was working at a language summer camp for teenagers in Spain and one of the teachers’ son spoke no English at all. The boy, aged 15, was enrolled in my class as he struggled with English at school.
Yes, his mum was a native speaker and a great ESL teacher, everyone loved her activities. Yes, she had to pay for an expensive private camp just like the Spanish families. Yes, everyone around, included his friends at the camp, found it weird.
She regretted not speaking English to the boy as he had very superficial relationships with his family in UK. She was worried about his future; economic crisis in Spain forced many young people to seek work abroad. How would her son cope with no English skills?
And why all of that? Because the boy was a late talker and her family doctor as well as her husband’s Spanish family advised her to “stick to Spanish”. I think no more comments are needed here.
3) Speaking multiple languages will confuse a child
People who live in monolingual environments don’t realize that in many countries, like Kenia, Senegal or India, many children hear several languages from birth. There is a regional dialect (or a few of them!), an official language, at school children study in English or French…I have never heard about children from these countries suffering from confusion that affects their school performance and life skills in general. Have you?
If children hear languages in specific situations (ie. French with Dad, Spanish with mum, Dutch at school, English during special “English time”), they will not get confused. Young children may mix languages, but they will eventually learn that every language has a different system, and that knowledge will help them to study foreign languages later.
But if you already imagine your baby as a future UN translator, read carefully the next points.
4) All multilingual children succeed academically
As one of the mums from “Raising Bilingual/Multilingual Children” Facebook group points out, “people think that knowing a second language makes you smarter and better and get disappointed when the kid isn’t the next Einstein”.
Ellen Bialystok, a profesor of psychology from Canada who has been researching bilingual brains for decades admits that her work may be interpreted in a wrong may; bilinguals aren’t more inteligent than monolinguals, their brains differ in the use of executive function. It’s a system that helps the brain to access knowledge or memories when needed. Thus, bilingual kids can be better than monolingual kids at multitasking, decision-making and giving quick and accurate feedback, but it doesn’t mean that they will be better than their monolingual peers at reading, writing, drawing, maths and all the other areas.
My “favourite” comments at preschool go as following: “Andrés’s drawings are not very advanced; what a pity for him, with his three languages etc…””. “So, he speaks three languages and he only got to say a one-sentence role in the Nativity Play?” And, finally, the one: “When you grow up, you’ll be a translator or an interpreter like your mum, won’t you”?
5) All multilingual children are good at languages and in the future will become language teachers, translators and interpreters
When somebody asks my 5-year old if the’s going to be an interpreter, he makes it clear; no way, he’s going to be a train driver. As for my 3 year old, he’s going to be a train. Yes, you’ve read right. Not a translator, not a language teacher. A train, like Thomas or Chuggington characters.
First of all, not all bilingual children are equally good at languages. Yes, they learn foreign languages more easily, but it is not a rule. One of “Multilingual mums” from Facebook, raised in German and English had a very hard time learning Italian when she lived in Italy and she claims that hadn’t it been for her bilingualism, she would never have learnt a second language. Even between siblings there are differences when it comes to foreign language acquisition.
Then, being fluent in a few languages does not imply a career related with languages. Believe me, in the world there are many multilingual doctors, business owners, hair dressers and taxi drivers, who didn’t think for a while to become translators. Fluency in English is one thing, becoming an English teacher is a career choice that requires a few years of training.
But you can be sure that whatever your child’s career choice will be, bilingualism is always a competitive advantage. Whether you want to work abroad or work for a foreign company at your home town, languages will broaden your professional opportunities.
And, as my hubby says, our trilingual boys will be able to pick up so many foreign girls on holidays! In a men’s world this is definitely an advantage 🙂
6) To succeed, multilingual families must spend all their time on educational activities.
More than just the “Einstein” sterotype; some people tend to think that multilingual children go to private schools that offer instruction in a few languages and/or are raised by non-working mothers who spend all their time on reading and making crafts with the kids in respective languages. All the crafts of course aim to teach the kids about their heritage culture. After school the kids have to do homework in the minority language and at bedtime there’s a concert of multilingual lullabies…..And finally each toy, snack and book in the house has cultural/linguistic value and is worth a separate Instagram post. Such stereotypes make people think that parents who raise bilingual kids are overachieving, nerdy types, different from “the rest” of society.
A friend of mine who’s expecting a Polish/German baby felt scared when she first took a look on resources for bilngual children on the Web. “I’m not a crafty person and I don’t like books, does it mean that my kids will not become bilingual? Do I need to stop watching The Big Bang Theory and start with Polish classical literature? ”
My kids go to a local, state preschool within 5 minutes walking distance from my house. We both work full time. Andrés and Michał are noisy, energetic boys who definitely prefer running around and shouting to making miniature Big Ben statues. Their favourite characters are Thomas (the train) and Lightning Mc Queen, not characters from traditional Polish or Venezuelan fairy legends.
Yes, we like baking and reading stories, but not all the time. We’re up to the same mundane things as other families with young children, the only difference is that we do all those things in three languages. And the truth is that every bilingual family is different; those who love books and those who love movies, those who love being outside and “couch potatoes”; not everyone has to follow the same pattern. The Internet is full of crafts, stories and songs for bilingual children, but it doesn’t mean that all bilingual families use all those resources.
7) Multilingual children are bullied at school for being “different”.
Michał, my bilingual 3 year old likes to play with blocks and little race cars with his friends. He loves chocolate cereals, ice cream and fart jokes and weatrs t-shirts with Lightning Mc Queen.
What is “different” about him? And why would anybody bully him just because at home he speaks Spanish with his Dad and sometimes he speaks English with his Mum?
Bililngual and multilingual children like to play and laugh just like their monolingual peers. My older son’s best friends in Spain were a Romanian kid, a Colombian/Venezuelan kids, a Brazilian kid and a few Spanish kids from a traditional Andalucian family. All those kids spoke Spanish together, played together by the pool and on the beach, watched cartoons in Spanish together and didn’t differentiate in any way between the Spanish and the foreigners.
All kids are somehow different from one another; some of them have ginger hair, other have a darker colour of skin, yet other wear glasses, and nobody has said that all of them will be bullied at school. Andres’s friends and teachers find it cool when he says Spanish words for colours or numbers in the class…..and I’m afraid to think of his teenage years, when he will impress girls with “te quiero” … 🙂
8) A parent who doesn’t speak the other language feels left out
A conversation on the way to preschool normally goes like that:
Michał (in Polish, pointing to a car) – Mommy, a blue car! There’s a car!
Me: Yes, a blue car.
Hubby: Si, un coche (Yes, a car).
Andres: Yesterday Karol brought his cars to preschool and we played with them! That was cool!
Hubby: Jugaste con coches en el cole (Did you play with cars at preschool)?
Andres: Si papi, me gustan mucho! (Yes, I like them very much).
Do you think that he felt terribly left out and their relationship father-son suffered because he didn’t get the word “blue” ? Or because he didn’t understand that the little cars belonged to Andres’s friend Karol? Not really. As Rita Rosenback points out in her article, parents of young kids often learn alongside their kids and the other parent, who speaks both languages, translates. As kids grow up, translation is less and less needed since older children have enough skills to communicate in both languages. Bilingual kids often translate for their parents.
Moreover, who said that a parent-child relationship is just about a language? It’s also about spending time together, cuddles, giggling, playing….and that language of parental love is universal!
9) Monolingual parents can’t succesfully raise a bilingual child
I’ll present you two kids: Chris and Lucía.
Chris lives in London, his parents are both English. However, Chris’s mum has a degree in Spanish, has lived in Spain for a few years and would love to pass on Spanish to her son. Both parents aggree: Dad will speak with Chris in English and Mum exclusively in Spanish. Chris’s mum is very fluent in Spanish and she feels comfortable speaking that language to her son. The family will also reinforce Spanish with books, TV and playgroups.
How about if Chris’s mum doesn’t feel comfortable enough to speak ONLY Spanish and give up English? Then she can dedicate specific days, weeks or time of the day for Spanish.
Maria Babin, author of the blog “Trilingual mama” changes a language she speaks with her kids every two weeks. You can read how she has adapted her family language plan to choose what suits best her children.
Lucía lives in Torrevieja, a little town in Spain. Her parents would love to raise her bilingually in Spanish and English,but their English is not very fluent and they can’t afford to enroll their daughter in a private international school.
How does Lucía learn English? Three times a week she spends some time with a British exchange student who lives nearby. They play, they sing songs, they read stories together. Lucía watches cartoons on YouTube and plays computer games in English. She’s often accompanied by her mum; this way they can learn a new language together.
10) There’s only one right way to raise bilingual kids
There are a few approaches to raise bilingual and multilingual kids.
One of them, OPOL (one parent, one language): each parent always speaks to the child in his or her own language
Minority Language at Home: minority language is spoken at home, while majority language is acquired from the community, at school, etc.
Time and Place: another language is used in specific situations and, thus, children associate a change of language with the context rather than with a person.
There are strong advocates of each of this method who claim that their way is the only right way to raise bilingual kids. Not at all.
Imagine an OPOL couple: a Dutch mother and a Spanish father living in the Netherlands. Their children hear Dutch from their mother, extended family, at school, at the playground….while they hear Spanish only from their father, who works full time and only spends evenings with the kids. Shouldn’t there be more focus on Spanish? If the mother speaks Spanish, maybe the minority language could become a family language?
Every family has to choose the method that suits them best and adapt it to their own needs. Do you feel comfortable changing languages you speak to your kids every week or every two weeks? Go for it! Do you want to dedicate just some time for another language, like bedtime stories or activities during the weekend for one language? It’s your choice. Be flexible, and if something’s not working try another approach.
A language is not a mathematical calculation that has to be done in exactly the same wa to get the right score; it’s all the contrary. The way we pass a language to our children is linked to our cultures, heritage, personalities and lots of different factors. Let’s embrace it and enjoy our multilingual journey.