Bilingualism in Children: Separating Facts from Fiction
Bilingualism in children can occur when kids are brought up using two languages from birth or from a young age. There are many people who believe that childhood bilingualism is a hinderance however in this article we are setting the facts straight.
What is bilingualism?
Bilingualism refers to the use of two languages on a regular basis. There are two main types of bilingualism, simultaneous bilingualism, and sequential bilingualism.
Types of bilingualism
This type of bilingualism in children occurs when the child is raised with two languages from birth. There are many ways this can happen.
One common way a child can be raised bilingually is if they have parents who speak different native languages and they use the OPOL- One person One Language strategy.
Another common way is where parents are migrants or expats and their home language is different to the community language. This language strategy is known as MLAH – Minority Language At Home.
This type of bilingualism in children occurs when a child is raised with one language initially but learns another language later on. There are different ways this can happen:
A bilingual education is most common, where a child attends an immersion school or a bilingual school and is educated in two languages.
Another common way is where the child has significant exposure to a second language through either a nanny, babysitter, grandparent, or friend who speaks the language.
Bilingualism in Children: Facts and Fiction
There are many myths about bilingualism and children who are raised bilingually. Here we go through the facts and the fiction.
1. Bilingualism is not a rare phenomenon
Did you know more than half the world is bilingual? In some countries such as Canada, bilingualism is the norm and people who live there speak two languages on a daily basis.
2. Bilingual Kids can learn multiple languages from birth
If children are given enough exposure to each language, they are able to learn two, or even more languages from birth. Yes babies can be bilingual from birth.
3. Bilingual kids mix languages, and it is normal
Mixing languages is normal initially and most bilingual kids will do this while figuring it all out. It is common for children to borrow words from another language to use in conversation. They do grow out of it as they become more fluent in each language.
4. Bilingualism does not cause a speech delay
If a child has a speech delay, they will most likely be delayed in both languages. Learning two languages at once will not cause a delay in speech. Though some children may take longer to become fluent in both languages than a child learning only one language, most will catch up by the time they go to school.
5. Children with special needs can become bilingual
For children with language development issues, one language will be difficult AND two languages will be difficult. According to research the underlying impairment will manifest in all languages, therefore even if the child is learning one language there will still be an issue. For kids with special needs, bilingualism is a great asset.
6. Monolingual Parents can raise bilingual kids
Even parents who do not speak a second language can raise a bilingual child. There are many ways they can achieve this including language immersion, a bilingual education, language classes, or an Aupair/Nanny. As long as a child has adequate exposure to both languages, they have the chance to be bilingual.
1. Bilingualism causes confusion
Being raised with two languages does not cause confusion. Children learn to distinguish between the languages very early on and learn when to speak which language and who with.
2. Children have to be smart to be bilingual
Any child has the possibility to be bilingual, no matter their level of intelligence. If there is the need for each language, and adequate exposure, a child will learn to speak both.
3. Children have to wait to know one language before learning another
There is no evidence that states children should learn one language before starting to learn another. In fact quite the opposite. Research on second language acquisition states that in most cases, the earlier languages are learned the easier it will be to attain fluency.
4. TV and Media will make your child fluent in a language
Many people think that TV can teach them a language. While media can help practice a language, it is highly unlikely that a person can become fluent by just watching TV and not actually practicing the language in real life.
5. Bilingual kids will fall behind in school
Although some bilingual children will initially be behind the level of their peers when they start school, research shows that they catch up quite quickly and in most cases outperform their peers. Bilingual children tend to do better on tasks that require multi-tasking, and problem solving, because these are the same skills used when learning multiple languages at once.
6. Bilingualism means speaking with a perfect accent
What is a perfect accent anyway? Everyone has an accent no matter which language you speak. It is possible for someone to be fluent in multiple languages even if they don’t speak with a “native accent”
Bilingualism in Children is an Advantage
There is no doubt that bilingualism in children has advantages. But there are many myths and misconceptions that we need to be aware of in order to understand it. I hope this list of bilingualism facts and fiction has helped!
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I enjoyed your article very much! I do take issue, however, with your statement that kids will grow out of mixing languages as they become fluent. I was raised in a Spanish-speaking country by English-speaking parents, so I have been bilingual from a very young age. Even though I no longer use Spanish on a daily basis, I still “mix up” the languages quite often! I throw in Spanish words all the time because they just make more sense! My parents do this also, as well as my husband who was raised similarly. It is normal for bilinguals to continue to “mix” the languages even after mastery.
Thank you for the insightful article!