5 Myths About Raising a Bilingual Child

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend (who happens to be a speech language pathologist) who said it was so great that we were teaching Liam both French and English at such a young age.

Although he’s still very little, I speak to Liam exclusively in French to make sure he becomes familiar with the language I grew up with. I figured that since he will most likely hear a lot of English as he is growing up because of school, my husband’s family, etc., the best I can do is to speak to him exclusively in my mother tongue.

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I was always excited about the idea of raising a bilingual child. Growing up, the best gift my parents ever gave me was to enroll me in an American school, even though they didn’t speak English themselves. Without this decision (as hard as it must’ve been for them), I would’ve never moved to the United States, met my husband, and you know the rest… no Liam! Who knows what my life would’ve been like…

I was always an object of curiosity among my peers (especially my friends and family living in France, who are not accustomed to being around English speaking people.) I was used to getting asked questions such as: do you count in French or English? What about your dreams, do you dream in English too?  Truth is, I count and dream in both languages — depending on where I am and with whom.

Children, and babies especially, are like sponges — they absorb everything. There is no better time to introduce a language, or two, or even three than early childhood. We are considering hiring a Spanish-speaking nanny when I go back to work instead of enrolling Liam in daycare (I was never a fan of the idea, as you can imagine, since I’m basically a stay at home mom who teaches college courses part-time.)

Don’t get me wrong, it will be challenging at times. Learning a language doesn’t just happen overnight without putting in any effort, but the reward is so worth it.

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It is such an advantage to know more than one language, not just professionally (you have job options available without pursuing degrees in education and translation, for example), but also socially: you are contributing to the world by making it a more open, diverse, and beautiful place. I can’t praise my parents enough for giving me this gift.

So on that note, here are a few of the most common misconceptions about raising a bilingual child:

  1. Learning more than one language will confuse a child. This is something I hear a lot and should be rectified. Right after birth, babies are able to tell the difference among languages. This is especially the case when languages are very different (which is the case with French, which is derived from Latin, and English, which is a Germanic language). Even if languages are very similar, by 6 months they are able to tell the difference between them (for example, German/Dutch or Spanish/Italian).
  2. Bilingualism leads to speech delay. Although some bilingual babies may need a bit longer than monolingual babies to initially start talking, this is not a general rule for every baby. Research shows that bilingualism does not cause delays in either speech or language acquisition.
  3. Bilingual children often tend to “mix” languages. One of the languages is inevitably dominant and it is to be expected that a child may blend the languages as he processes them. This has been found to be temporary, and changes as children build vocabulary in both languages with increased exposure. Mixing is common among bilingual adults as well (think Spanglish!), often done on purpose when one does not know the word in the spoken language. My opinion on this is that it is better to speak multiple languages and sometimes mix (which is really no biggie), then only one language perfectly.
  4. Parents must be fluent in a language to raise their child to speak it. This doesn’t have to be the case — many parents have successfully done it! Travel, movies, and books are all effective ways to teach a child a new language. Although it may help for parents to learn the basics of a language first, it is not a requirement. My parents enrolled me in an American school, which facilitated the process for them. I spoke French at home and learned French grammar/spelling with my mom.
  5. You have to be “gifted” with languages to learn more than one at a time. Although some people certainly show greater ease with learning new languages later in life (Spanish was easy for me to pick up, in my case), it is not the case with children, who are born prepared to learn new languages. Pre-verbal infants respond to different languages as early as four days after birth!

Keep in mind that it is never too late to raise a bilingual child. Although birth to 3 years is the optimal window, the second best is 4-7 years of age. If your child is between 7 years old and puberty, it’s still not too late either!

Studies show that after puberty, “new languages are stored in a separate area of the brain, so children have to translate or go through their native language as a path to the new language” (Babycenter).

So if you’re on the fence, please go for it. Think about the advantages for your child, not the challenges and difficulties that you will have to face in the process. They are so rewarding in the end, and just like me, your child will end up thanking you for giving him/her such a priceless and lifelong gift!

 

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