Raising bilingual children is an enormous challenge and with a number of myths surrounding the topic.
Like speech delays and stunted language development, it's easy to get overwhelmed. When it comes to our little ones, we want to give them all the resources and advantages in their overall development.
Hopefully, debunking some of these myths about raising bilingual children can help you realize that there are more advantages to teaching a second language to your children than there are demerits. Before we dive into the specific myths let's go over a general overview, listing the advantages of raising your children to be bilingual.
Benefits of raising a bilingual child
Contemporary research into the topics surrounding bilingualism and its effects on the brain has concluded a higher level of brain function in bilingual participants which is often a result of a stronger and higher number of neural pathways in a bilingual brain. Studies have also shown that bilingual children have a heightened level of perception when it comes to understanding visual stimuli and can have greater attention spans toward difficult or challenging tasks. You can find more detail about some of these studies here.
In addition to cognitive function and better overall development, the ability to speak two languages or more offers a multitude of practical applications. Native and fluent speakers are in the prime spot to leverage these benefits.
This begs the question of why raising bilingual children is even a decision but should rather be a requirement that provides your child with a competitive advantage over monolingual children, to begin with.
The myths and the facts
Now let's get into some of the myths surrounding the topic of raising bilingual children, followed by facts.
If you expose your child to multiple languages, there's a likelihood of speech delays.
Bilingual child speech delay here refers to the inability to communicate in a single language as required by their age.
The speech delays mentioned in this myth aren't scientific phenomena but rather general observations seen by parents in their children.
Let's say you are teaching your child to speak Spanish and they have 50 words of English and 50 words of Spanish in their vocabulary, this would seem inadequate to communicate with their cousin who has 90 words of English in his vocabulary. Assuming 10 of those Spanish words are known in English as well, your child has an effective vocabulary of 90 words. This is not a sign of speech delay at their age. What's considered a speech delay is actually a language delay, caused by the vocabulary gap which gradually closes with age. Soon they will have double the vocabulary!
Learning to speak more than one language can cultivate speech disorders.
Firstly, bilingualism in itself can not be blamed for speech disorders. There isn't any concrete proof to show that switching to monolingualism helps with speech disorders. Children with speech disorders can learn two languages and are at no disadvantage to their monolingual peers. Children with speech or language disorder(s), ADHD, Autism, Down Syndrome, and Hearing Impairment can all learn two languages.
Any good speech-language pathologist will tell you that, reducing the number of languages that you teach to a child doesn't cure the speech disorder. You get a monolingual child with a speech disorder.
Learning two languages will confuse your child.
There is no proof that children get confused by two languages. Rather toddlers in general can be observed babbling in two different languages, a native language with parent A and the majority language with parent B. Like adults, they might use the 2 languages in the same sentence but are aware of the social requirements and can modify their language accordingly. Their language skills are truly more advanced than we think. By the age of 4, they will be able to differentiate between the two languages completely.
Bilingual kids do not develop a strong identity.
Bilingual language development goes so much beyond the ability to communicate effectively and express oneself. Being bilingual is a part of your child's identity. The development of your child's identity in their earlier years is your responsibility as a parent and has nothing to do with them being bilingual. As for when they go to school, as long as they have normal language development, they're going to be just fine. Like I said before, children learn to distinguish between their two languages by the age of 4, so they will be able to switch between the majority and the minority language.
A child will never be fluent in their second language if not introduced earlier on.
Studies have shown that the ability to absorb new languages for a human is the highest until the age of 3. Although starting early has its advantages, and younger children have a greater rate of absorption, there is no barrier to learning a language later on in life. A child's language development depends on the environment and the quantity of input they receive. Language learning difficulties exist at all ages but it's nothing out of the ordinary. A child or adult at any age can learn to speak two or more languages.
Bilingual children can lag academically.
Contrary to popular belief bilingualism has no effect on a child's academic performance and is rather at a considerable advantage to their monolingual peers. Kids in two-way immersion programs in Canada have steadily increased in number. They are on the receiving end of multiple psychological advantages compared to their peers, and also unlock multiple career opportunities later on in life.
You need bilingual parents to raise bilingual children.
When parents are monolingual, there's always the question if they want to raise their children to be bilingual, especially in immigrant families. New immigrants who know a little bit of the majority language, are often fluent in their native languages but their children quickly grasp the majority language. This is because children learn a language in school, camp, and through interactions. This means that the ability of a child to be bilingual is independent of the parents' backgrounds, yes diversity in language exposure matters, greatly so. But, that doesn't inhibit your child from learning another language.
Read our article on Raising a Bilingual Child
As you can see through the myths and the facts above, most myths about raising and having bilingual children don't have a solid basis behind them. What has been considered a speech delay, is actually a language delay and it often closes with the passage of time. A bilingual child is at an equal level in language development, academics, and personality development to their monolingual peers. Research has even shown bilingualism to be advantageous with respect to brain development and future career opportunities. Second language learning is independent of the parent's background and greatly depends on the quality and quantity of input in the target language.