As parents of bilingual children, many of us have been there: finding ourselves in a situation where others give us advise on what is best for our children when it comes to their languages, and how we should behave as a family. Sometimes we get brilliant ideas on how to succeed, but this is unfortunately not always the case, as I have seen from the many questions coming in and reading parent’s thoughts online. Below are some of the most frequent comments I have come across and suggestions on how to reply to them.
1. “Your child will get confused”
You would think that this myth would have been eradicated by now, but it isn’t, so it needs to be reiterated. Children are extremely adept at separating languages they speak with different people and will not get confused in a family with more than one language.
2. “Her speech will be delayed”
Bilingualism does not cause language delay. Older research that seemed to find a delay has been based on incorrect research methods: bilingual children were assessed based on monolingual standards and not all of their languages were taken into account. Just like with their monolingual peers, there are great differences in the pace of their language development.
3. “He will lag behind in school”
Knowing another language does not take away from your ability to learn. On the contrary, there is research that indicates that since bilinguals constantly have to suppress one (or more) of their languages, they get better at focusing and at avoiding distractions. These are abilities which are likely to contribute to a greater success in education.
4. “Two languages are too much for a small child”
The majority of the world’s population speaks more than one language. There are millions of children that are living proof of children’s ability to pick up two or more languages while they are growing up.
5. “Developmental differences? Only speak one language with your kid!”
Whether your child is on the autistic spectrum or is developmentally different in any other way, this is no reason for not raising him or her bilingual. On the contrary, it may be harmful for the child if a parent stops speaking a language the child is used to talking with them.
6. “Your language will be of no use to them!”
Any additional language is useful and a family language is particularly beneficial for a child. A language is not only a means of communication, but a route to embracing another culture. Knowing the family language gives a bilingual child confidence and helps them explore their background and understand their identity.
7. “You should concentrate on supporting them with the community language!”
While I do think it is important to learn the language of the country you live in, this does not mean that you should sacrifice a home language, both can be maintained and learned. Children will always learn the language of the surrounding community, but a home language can easily be forgotten if it is not used in everyday life.
8. “A bilingual child will not learn the majority language properly!”
Knowing a minority language does not have a negative effect on the learning of the majority language. On the contrary, having a strong foundation in any language is beneficial for learning further languages.
9. “Wait with your language until they are fluent in the language of the school!”
Children have the capacity to learn several languages at the same time. Simultaneous bilingualism is a common way to learn languages, so there is no need to wait for a child to be fluent in one language before introducing another, especially not a language which the child will have plenty of exposure to. If you start with the majority language, it can actually be quite difficult to start with the minority language later on – it can be done, but as a parent you will have to put more effort in.
10. “You should speak the language of the country you live in!”
If someone tells you to only speak the language of the country you are living in, they most likely have an underlying agenda, based on a narrow-minded view of the world. More often than not, there is no way you can convince this person to change their mind, so my recommendation is to smile, move on and forget about the comment.
11. “You don’t want your kids to be different!”
If your children are growing up with more than one language, it is highly likely that they already are in one way or another not exactly the same as all other kids in their class. Don’t deprive your child of a language because you are worried they could be bullied for it – teach them to be proud of it and of the culture it represents.
12. “We will not understand what they speak!”
Some of your relatives, maybe your child’s grandparents, may we worried that they will not understand if you kid learns the minority language first. Remind them that your children will learn their language as well and that their grandchildren will have many more benefits from becoming bilingual.
Always keep in mind that you decide how you want to raise your child!
This is very great, and informative information. I was bi-lingual as a child and now an adult and learned both languages at the same time when I could speak Spanish/English. I am bi-racial and I’m so glad that my family stressed both languages to us at the same time before school started. I didn’t feel confused but I did feel like at times I had to make a switch in my mind when communicating in Spanish with my Mother’s family and then English with my Father’s family. I love knowing both cultures well and feel so lucky to have these cultures in my life and living in America, its the best!
Well written Rita!
I was born in the Netherlands and was raised by a French speaking mum and an English speaking father.
By the time I went to ‘big’ school I spoke 4 languages fluently, now also including Jiddish.
In my high school days I choose to add German and Spanish, which I still speak, not as fluent as I used to, but good enough to follow multiple conversations.
I married an Italian, so you can guess…
By the time I turned 25, I graduated as doctor in Dutch language and literature and was already working as a teacher for the last 7 years. Another 7 years later I became a doctor in psychology (double degree, 2 thesies).
I was born as a left handed one, but forced by teachers at primary school to use my right hand, which made me slower than the average child.
Despite all, I’ve always been an outstanding student and human being and now at 70, I am in my 4th year at uni studying law, and hope to specialise in criminal law in the near future.
Being brought up with multiple languages has trained my brain at a very young age to focus better and being less distracted by outside world, less important or irrelevant information.
Love your remark in 10, shrug your shoulders and walk on indeed!