In most parts of the world, being bilingual is seen as an advantage. Back in Peru, my paternal grandfather sent my mother and her sisters to a bilingual (English/Spanish) school from kindergarten on. My parents sent both my sister and I to that same bilingual school. I hope to do the same for my daughter—send her to a bilingual school, that is. And, it seems like we’re not alone. According to some estimates, 75 percent of the world’s population speaks more than one language.
The most natural way to grow up …
But for “many people, especially in countries like the U.S. with a monolingual mainstream culture … being monolingual is the most natural way to grow up,” according to Barbara Zurer Pearson, author of Raising a Bilingual Child. This might be the reason why, in this country, there are so many misconceptions about growing up multilingual.
So, in an effort to promote bilingualism, I thought I’d try to dispel some of these myths for you. Let’s see how many you’ve heard.
Five common myths about raising bilingual children:
1. Growing up with two or more languages will only confuse your child.
According to everything I’ve read, this misconception has been around for a long time and apparently it goes back to issues of immigration in the United States. Educators used to tell immigrant parents that it was better for their children to speak English at home—erroneously stating that early exposure to two languages put children at a disadvantage. This is why there are so many third-generation Chavez(es) or Rodriguez(es) in the West that do not speak a word of Spanish. Newer research actually shows there are many advantages to being bilingual, including flexible thinking.
2. It takes longer for bilingual children to learn how to speak.
The author of Raising a Bilingual Child, Barbara Zurer Pearson, says this myth is not supported by any scientific evidence. In fact, “with respect to most developmental language milestones, bilinguals are either at the same level as or ahead of monolinguals.”
3. They will only end up mixing both languages.
This is inevitable and it’s harmless. But to monolinguals, it’s proof that the child isn’t really able to tell his languages apart. The actual term for this behavior is “code-switching” and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. I do it and it’s not because I’m not completely fluent in both English and Spanish, but because sometimes a word sounds better in the language I’m not using.
4. It’s too late.
It is never too late. It is only easier when they are younger. According to the Multilingual Children’s Association, the critical period is from 0–3 years of age. “Brain imaging studies show that languages in bilingual infants are stored closer together in the brain than in later bilinguals.” This only means that after three, children have to put more effort into learning a new language.
5. There is only one right way to do it.
In fact there are several ways of raising a child bilingual. The right way is what works for you and your family. Consistency is key. So, whatever method you choose, just make sure you stick to it!
To find out more about the actual methods to raise your kids to become bilingual, don’t miss my next post!
And, if you still have your doubts about all these myths, just ask somebody from Belgium, Canada, or Switzerland—among others—where bilingualism is the norm, not the exception!
What myths have you encountered during your bilingual journey?