It is amazing how much unsolicited and unfounded advice you receive when you expose your children to multiple languages. These misconceptions often come from individuals who never had a bilingual upbringing, let alone raise bilingual children. Today, I want to share just three of my favorite myths about the bi- and multilingual experience. Hopefully, it will provide encouragement to those thinking about taking the multilingual plunge with their families.
Myth #1 - “Raising a bilingual child leads to speech delays, you know!”
This misconception is perhaps one of the most important for me personally, because it has led several friends I know to choose not to raise their children bilingually. It is one of the nearest to my heart because I have encountered it often. Even from the lips of our pediatrician. That is because my own son was slower to babble. It took him longer to piece together complex sentences than many of his peers. And let’s face it, for the uninitiated in Ayo-speak, he can still be hard to understand at times. Instead of grasping the concept of language interference coming from another language (“it’s a cat black”, “U is for Parapluie!” (=umbrella)) or unintentional code-switching (“maman said the sapin is in the garage”), it is assumed that children like mine have speech delays.
“That’s because he is mixing it up in his head”
“You do know that he won’t speak as early as other people, right?”
“He’s still mixing languages, you know!”
“Don’t expect his English to be as good!”
Perfect strangers have said such things to me, after experiencing two minutes of interaction with my child. While it is true that bilingual children are asked to process a lot, language acquisition and its mouthpiece, speech, is developed on a huge bell curve. Let’s not forget that monolingual children too, develop speech on a very broad spectrum. I have met a one year old little girl growing up in a solid albeit reserved monolingual home who could flawlessly string together a five word sentence with correct pronouns and verb conjugation. I have also met an almost three year old boy, from a stable and extroverted monolingual home who, apart from mastering “yes” and “no”, almost only responds to his parents in animal sounds. While I too once wondered if I was slowing down language acquisition or maybe even damaging my kid forever (*gasp!*), every study I read invited me to trust the process. I think it was Naomi Steiner who debunked the supposed “speech delay” myth the best for me in her simple, yet practical book “7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child”. Today, I sincerely believe that fluency or the perfecting of speech isn’t just about how much data we flood the brain with or solely how much we talk to our children. It is closely tied to temperament, gender, birth order as well. Theory confirmed for me with a daughter who is already more verbal at almost one year than Ayo was at 15 months.
Myth #2 - “You need to be a native speaker to raise your child bilingually, you know!”
It once crippled me to think about teaching French and more recently, Mandarin, to our kiddos. I held fast to the idea that native speakers and maybe simultaneous bilinguals are the most apt at teaching their language. What would that mean for me? I am just a successive bilingual. As for my Mandarin knowledge, I’m a timid conversationalist at best, more rusty than an old drain pipe as the months go on that separate us from life in China…
At times, I wondered how will I discuss what happens on a construction site or how I can teach them classic nursery rhymes that I never grew up singing. But like anything, if you are committed to the process and are willing to be a learner, putting in the hard work, you can reap beautiful fruit. Think about how many things you learn on a daily basis in your mother-tongue. Most English-speaking parents don’t know the definition of “pratfall”, “chiaroscuro”, “nidificate” or “diffluence”, yet become their children’s main language instructors. Why then, do we think we have to know everything in our language(s) of instruction?
Can I just come out and say this? While there are risks involved in raising a kid in your non-native language (yes, sure, emotional connection in later years, mistakes they may inherit from you..), it is never ever a waste to use your mustard seed of a language skill to teach your kids. That is because you aren’t just teaching them an extra set of cognates, but a whole new way of seeing the world. You are teaching them awareness of and compassion for the other, you are teaching them how to be a bridge-builder, you are teaching them that there isn’t just one way to do things. Opening up their world.
Let’s not kid ourselves, it is already bloody hard work raising bilingual kids when parents have a native command of the languages they speak, let alone joining your kids in the language learning process. But I have seen parents do this, with their own shakey vocab or questionable accents on multiple occasions. I have to take my hat off to their blood sweat and language tears.
I also know parents who step out in faith and hire a foreign nanny or throw their kids in immersion school, speaking not a word of the minority language their children are learning. Think how bold that is! How much vision and foresight must you have for the future to be persistent in the language marathon today – with a non native command of a language?
These heroic examples have led me to invite Mandarin into my home, to teach my children what I know. And already, the 20-30 odd words my 2.5 years old knows in Mandarin have opened up a whole world of mutual affinity to the Chinese community around us. Provided you have an internet connection, it has never been easier to find resources out there to teach your kid the nursery rhymes you didn’t know or the language you haven’t fully ‘mastered’.
Myth #3 - “Bilingual children are more intelligent than their monolingual peers”
In the past 30 years, we somehow went from saying bilingualism would confuse the kids to saying they are smarter. This is quite a destructive myth, breeding snobbish bilinguals and an inferiority complex in monolinguals. This is so harmful to relationship. This myth has led us to talk about our children living with two (or three) languages, rather than saying “we have bilingual children”. Somehow, it feels more like a normal part of our life, much like saying “our living room has a red couch” and less like we are preparing Junior Awesome to graduate with flying colors in his Ivy league university.
Today, we know that bilinguals aren’t faster at performing brain tasks. Rather, that the brain activity is very different to those of monolinguals (read more here, and here). Children raised with a consistent input in multiple languages must filter out the important information from the less important information. There is talk of higher executive function of the brain in the process of having to sort the relevant information. This leads to many cognitive benefits: I think I can attest to a remarkable dexterity in matching games, puzzles and in many ways a propensity towards learning other languages (“Maman! Papa says papillon, Señor Chufo say Mariposa!”) from the brain building required from the constant triage. This has zero, zilch, nothing to do with intelligence quotient or emotional quotient.
So there you have it, three of my favorite myths surrounding bilingualism.
Over to you, what are some of the things you have heard about bilingualism? Have they led you to question raising your child with other languages?
And as a special bonus, just for kicks, here was Ayo at 26 months, playing around with us with sounds: French vowels vs. Southern American English three way diphthongs. That leads me to what would have been my fourth myth, that language learning can’t be fun!
(For the sake of this post, I referred to ‘bilingualism’ throughout, even though most statements are applicable to multilingualism on the whole, that is to say, children and adults consistently exposed to more than two languages.)
This post was written for the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival.
This month’s carnival is hosted by Annabelle Humanes, author of The Piri Piri Lexicon. Head over there this Monday, November 24 to read fascinating blog posts written by a wide range of multilingual parents on the theme of ‘Bilingualism – Pulling Apart the Myths’!