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Bilingualism: 3 Myths

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 these 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 yet 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 how much we talk to our children. We’ve just got to tie it to temperament, gender, birth order as well. Theory confirmed for me personally 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 have wondered how I would be able to discuss in detail 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 will 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. You are 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 language 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 into an immersion school, speaking not a word of the minority language their children are learning. Think about how bold that is! How much vision and foresight must you have for the future to be persistent in the language marathon  – with a non native command of a language?

These heroic examples have led me to invite Mandarin into my own home, to teach my children what I know. And already, the 20-30 odd words my 2.5 year 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  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). Basically, children raised with a consistent input in multiple languages must filter out the important information from the less important information. There is more and more talk of higher executive function of the brain in the process of having to sort the relevant information. Sure, this leads to many cognitive benefits. I think I can attest to a remarkable dexterity in matching games, memory games, puzzles/problem solving and in many ways a propensity towards learning other languages (“Maman! Papa say 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.)

Feature image by Courtney Zimmerman of Carryingwonder Photography.

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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 here to read her fantastic summary post featuring 17 bloggers’ takes on the subject “Bilingualism – Pulling Apart the Myths”!

15 thoughts on “Bilingualism: 3 Myths

  1. Your analysis was great. But one thing that jumps to my mind is that there is so much bullying in the US and worldwide. Bullying is not just to show who is stronger (read: stupider), but an attempt to force someone of another mini subculture to conform and agree with your own pinhead background and view. Surely a bi-lingual person is more evaluative and less likely to lash out and force stereotypes upon other people, but to learn from people. Not that the “bi’s” are morally superior, but surely more like looking at the world through the eyes of a fly, which, from biology, is like a hundred little images that detect movement and change. Pretty sick analogy. Not to say that bi’s are a human fly, but pardon the analogy. I so rebel, not just react, against being forced into the mold of the norm. I want change, I want ideas, I want invention, not more of the standard way everyone else tries to do things.

    It will be interesting to do a quick and cursory study of whether bi’s are “oh, so cool,” and dressing in designer clothes like all the other kids or not. Is it a wealth issue or is it a non-conform issue. (That was code switching.)

    My challenge was once to accept mono-cultural people who “just don’t get it. I’m over that now. I had to learn a love language for that breed of people of which I was one, not being better now, but being maybe more open to change and even SHOUTING out the need for change.

    1. You know, I think this could go both ways. I do think that multilingual living helps us to see outside of the box. I love that. However, wouldn’t you agree that many people with access to the world at their fingertips certainly do cast judgement upon monolinguals, or at a minimum upon their home and host cultures? I am fully aware that a sense of entitlement and judgement are some of the dangers we will need to look out for along this road with Ayo and Délice. We’re committed to the process of challenging them to think outside the box and yet realize they have the same core longings of belonging, love, acceptance, security as everyone else. I had to learn this too.

  2. Très intéressant, Esther! I think you’re doing an amazing job. When I become a mother, I know I’ll have the deep desire to teach my children English so that they speak both English and French fluently. Et qui sait peut-être même une 3ème langue selon le papa qu’ils auront. 🙂

  3. This is an awesome post. When we were kids, bilingualism wasn’t really a thing parents were aware of as far as giving your kids a leg up (or not)… I attended a Jewish day school starting in third grade. I had a tutor the summer before I started to teach me enough Hebrew that I would be able to follow the curriculum. Certainly, it could be a coincidence, but the two girlfriends that I am still in close contact with from that school began learning Hebrew when they were in kindergarten. One ended up majoring in anthropology, and she is now a physician. She serves many Creole speaking patients, and they often ask her what part of Haiti she is from. (Her husband is originally from Haiti, but she is from Rhode Island!). She also went to college in Canada and had no problem picking up French from her boyfriend at the time… Meanwhile my other friend jumped into level three Portuguese when the intro course was full at her college. She is now living in Brazil and owns a translation business.

    Yes, these are just two little examples, and I know anecdotal evidence is not supposed to be valid, but I can’t help but think my friends’ very early exposure to another language and another culture shaped who they became as adults.

    Kudos to you for offering your children the opportunity to be bilingual, to consider what that means, and to communicate it here in such an articulate way.

    1. Hey Pam,
      Thanks for stopping by! I had no idea about your early Jewish school and Hebrew days. I wonder if that exposure has anything to do with your love of language today as well as the incredibly dexterity you have in writing…
      As for your friends, I wouldn’t underestimate the impact language had on them and their careers (or who they chose to marry!).

      As you know, language is so closely tied with culture, which means you can’t really learn it in a meaningful way without learning a new way of seeing the world. You can’t really learn a new language without relating and interacting with people who speak that language, which creates an affinity. You can’t really learn a new language without realizing there might be others (and their corresponding cultures) you might be missing out on!

  4. Thanks for sharing. Always great to debunk the myths. Also, I’m super happy to meet another parent raising their children with Mandarin as a far from proficient speaker. I’d love to connect more and share resources and ideas. Just email me at the address I inserted for the comment.

    1. I would love to share resources and ideas, Nick.
      I will certainly be in touch. In the meantime, thanks for taking the time to leave a comment!

  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you for the way you addressed the myth of needing to be a native speaker to raise children bilingually. I resonated with your thought so much because I’m in the same boat (just starting out as a mom and now a blogger on the topic). I love that this whole thing is a learning process for us BOTH! I’m glad to have found your blog, and have added its link on my website. I’m also going to pass it along to a third culture friend raising her children in 3 languages.

    1. Hi Audrey!
      Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving a comment! I wanted to focus on the myths that were the most relevant to us and our short journey into this world. So happy the non-native myth resonated with you. I feel like there isn’t a ton of information on this subject or many people willing to make the long-term commitment to teach their kids in a non-native language, so I feel it is important to encourage one another. If you browse this blog, you will see how my own journey has changed somewhat too, based on the changing needs of our growing family. Isn’t that in essence true for all aspects of parenting? They change, allowing us to be transformed in the process. Today, multilingualism in our home is way more natural than it was two years ago when my son couldn’t respond. It’s all good. We find our footing.
      Thanks so much for linking to this blog on yours, which I can’t wait to discover!!

  6. Esther – Well done! One of the “Rules” we teach people we’re training to learn another language is: Everyone Learns at a Different Rate! We see this in our monolingual children, yet fail to apply it to learning additional languages.

    Also, “code switching”, the mixing of languages in one sentence is considered a point of growth in language acquisition by linguists! It’s “Normal” and a part of the process.

    (We met back in 2001 when my husband Don & I stayed with your family a few days back near Paris.)

    1. Hey Karen,
      I must have missed your comment in the chaos of the end of the year. Thank you for taking the time to leave such pertinent thoughts!
      Completely agree about code-switching as a sign of linguistic strength. My undergrad thesis was all the nerdy nitty gritty information surrounding grammatical patterns that we use when code-switching. It turns out, foreign verbs are still conjugated within the majority language framework. So fascinating!
      Are you in linguistics then?

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