A child’s ability to learn language is indeed a wonderful accomplishment. In a span of three to five years, almost all children become competent in at least one language and are able to converse in different situations.
Moreover, it’s amazing how bilingual children are able to acquire competency in two or more languages during their early years of life at the same time as monolingual children learn one language. However, childhood bilingualism continues to be misunderstood. Some educators do not approve of it and parents feel hesitant about raising their child to be bilingual because of the lack of familiarity or knowledge about childhood bilingualism. However, new research shows the benefits of bilingualism and provide contrary evidence to previous notions.
Read on below to know more about the common misconceptions and truths about raising bilingual children.
Children become confused when exposed to two or more languages at the same time. They won’t be able to separate the languages from each other.
This is the most common misconception of people when it comes to teaching a child a new language. Parents are especially cautious because they’re worried that their child won’t be able to separate the languages, causing confusion and mix-up of words. The thing is, most bilingual children use words and sounds from both languages when they converse even if who they’re talking to is using just one language. Because of this, early childhood educators and parents become concerned and think that the child cannot differentiate the languages.
Research has shown that this is not true. The main reason why bilingual children mix languages is because they lack enough vocabulary in one or both languages to express themselves fully in just one language at this early stage of learning. With this, they borrow words from their other language. It’s actually an effective communication strategy for the child is able to fully express what he/she wants to say during this stage of development, especially when both languages are spoken at home. Indeed, it is just normal when it comes to early bilingual acquisition, and as they grow older and acquire more vocabulary in both languages, they will naturally stop doing it unless it is the norm in the community.
Definitely, it does not mean that they can’t differentiate one language from the other. According to Barbara Zurer Pearson, author of ‘Raising a Bilingual Child’, “From just days after birth, all infants can tell the difference between many languages,” she says that it is especially true when the languages are distinctly different such as English and Arabic. When languages are too similar such as English and Dutch, infants can find it hard to tell them apart but when they reach 6 months, they won’t have a problem with it anymore.
This confusion myth probably rooted from older research based on poorly designed studies, drawing conclusions that early exposure to 2 languages will be a disadvantage for a child. Such research has signaled educators to encourage immigrants to do away with their native language and put emphasis on just English proficiency.
Learning two or more languages during childhood result to delays in language development.
This does not hold true. Bilingual children who have much exposure to both languages have the same language development milestones as monolinguals of the same age. Whether bilingual or monolingual, there are individual differences in language acquisition. Some children acquire their first words or learn complex words much earlier than other children. Delays in such milestones don’t necessarily mean that there’s something wrong. In most cases, it just means that it just takes longer for the child to reach that stage, regardless or whether the child has one or more languages. On the other hand, parents of bilingual children should provide enough exposure to both languages all the time so as not to disrupt language acquisition.
According to Ellen Stubbe Kester, president of Bilinguistics, which offers bilingual speech-language services in Austin, Texas, “Research indicates that bilingualism does not cause delays in either speech or language acquisition,” and if your child was diagnosed with a kind of speech delay, teaching him a second language won’t make his speech any more delayed. “Studies have found that children with language delays who are in dual language environments gain language at the same rate as those in monolingual environments,” says Kester.”
As compared to monolingual children, bilingual children have less exposure to each of their languages. Because of this, they are never able to fully master either language or be as proficient as monolingual children.
Even though bilingual children usually have less exposure to each of their languages, they can acquire the same proficiency in all areas of both languages over time as monolingual children do in one language. The same holds true in terms of proficiency in grammar and phonological areas of language, provided that there’s regular and substantial exposure to each of their languages.
Although some bilingual children may know fewer words in one or both of their languages as compared to monolinguals of their age, this is just short term. Since all young children have limited memory capacities, there’s a limit on the words that can be stored in the brain. However, as bilingual children become more exposed to their languages, they would generally know the same words and have the same vocabulary range as that of their monolingual peers. If and when these differences occur, they are only short term and would most likely disappear when the children begin schooling.
In conclusion, it is necessary not to overreact to these differences in proficiency since they are usually just temporary. In the meantime, parents can help their children become proficient in both languages by providing exposure and rich experiences in both languages, especially in the minority language which does not have much support in the community. For immigrants, it is also important to use the heritage language because it’s part of the family culture and is necessary in developing the child’s identity while growing up. It helps them learn about their roots and feel connected to their families
Because children are like sponges, they can become bilingual in no time and without effort.
Yes, it may be easier for children to learn a new language when they’re exposed to it earlier. However, it doesn’t happen instantly. Simply letting your kids watch a cartoon with another language won’t be enough. Though it isn’t hard to teach a child a new language, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to put some effort into it. You see, it would be more effective to introduce your children to a new language with structure and consistency, whether by daily conversation or by formal language instruction. That way, they would be able to learn language in more meaningful and interesting ways that are in tune with real life. Incorporating music, games, and other fun activities would be helpful too.
It’s too late to raise your child bilingual because he’s already used to his first language.
It is never too late nor too early to introduce your child to a new language. However, earlier is better. The best time is from birth to 3 years because this is the time when children have open and flexible minds and are able to absorb language most effectively. The next best time is when kids reach 4-7 years old, because they are still able to process multiple languages, and can speak like a native. The next best time is 8-12 years old. After the age of 12, studies show that new languages are stored in a separate area of the brain, so the children have to go through their native language to learn the new language. Yes, we often hear about the benefits of learning a new language at a young age and yes it may be easier during that time, however, it’s never too late for older children to learn too.
Other important things to keep in mind about childhood bilingualism:
- All children have the capability to learn two or more languages.
- Proficiency in both languages will be enhanced if there’s equal exposure to both languages. Moreover, it would help if parents expose them with the language in varied ways
- Teaching a second language should not be just for the sake of it, but more on how it would help them in the long run.
- There are different ways of teaching a new language. Parents are not just limited to a one way street, but are encouraged to determine what works best for their child.