Four Myths About Bilingual Children
At bilingualkidsrock.com/nine-bilingual-myths/ you have a list of myths regarding raising a child to be bilingual. However, no research is cited at that article. I came across a paper written by a psychologist who is an expert in second language acquisition who mentioned 4 myths that cause parental pessimism about teaching children a second language. Here is a summary of that paper, with the references there.
- Dr. Fred Genesee, a professor emeritus of psychology at McGill University who is an expert in second language acquisition published an article in the Journal of Applied Research on Learning in 2009
- The paper was about 4 major myths that cause parents pessimism about teaching children a second language.
- The following is a summary of each of the myths, and some of the research that Dr. Genesee uses to show they are just myths
- To read the full article (and find the references to all the studies Dr. Genesee uses), go to https://www.mcgill.ca/psychology/fred-h-genesee
Myth 1: “The Myth of the Monolingual Brain”
This myth suggests that children are naturally monolingual.
- Thus, if you try to teach a child a second language, he/she will get confused and will be unable to separate the two languages
Indeed, Dr. Genesee points out, early theories of language suggested that infants exposed to multiple languages mixed them together until the age of 3, when they could begin separating them
However, new research suggests that children's brains are not naturally monolingual:
- Language Development Milestones
Recent research has shown that children exposed to two languages early in life reach language development milestones at roughly the same rate as mono-lingual children
While a lot of the research is new, even if there is shown to be a difference in bilingual children's language development, this difference is unlikely to make a perceptible difference in the long run if the child is given the opportunity to continue gaining proficiency in the second language
- Differentiated Use of Two Languages
If young bilingual children get confused and mix both languages together in their brains, we should expect that they wouldn't be able to use each language in an appropriate way
In other words, “confused” children wouldn't know when it is appropriate to use one language or the other
However, recent research has shown that even in very early language development stages (like when the child can only say one or two word phrases), children have the ability to use each language when it is appropriate – such as when one parent uses one language and the other parent uses the other language
This shows that children do have a sense of when each language is appropriate to use
- Grammatical Constraints on Bilingual Code-Mixing
Even when children tend to mix the two language together, they do so according to rules of grammar, and in a way that is similar to adults who learn a second language
Thus, there doesn't seem to be a period in childhood when children “get confused”
- TRUTH: The brain of a child is not naturally mono-lingual. It has the natural capacity to learn, understand, and use multiple languages appropriately.
Myth 2: The Myth of Time-on-Task
There is a myth about learning that simply putting more time into learning something will result in more competence
While this is true for a lot of things, it can discourage parents by making them think that:
- If they don't have 60+ hours a week to immerse their child in a second language, their child will not become competent in that language, OR
- If they can't afford expensive total immersion programs, their child will not learn a second language, OR
- If they don't teach their child from an extremely early age, they might as well give up – their child will never learn a second language!
However, there are some studies that show that in the long run, students who have gone through early total language immersion programs don't show a particular advantage to students in partial or delayed immersion programs
There are two possible explanations for this fact:
- One, it's not just classroom instruction that makes the difference, but also total exposure to the language outside the classroom
- Two, language skills in a first language can transfer to learning a second language (thus, if a child is instructed very well in a first language, they might have an advantage down the road when they learn a second language)
Finally, Dr. Genesee suggests that it's not simply about the quantity of exposure to a second language, it's also quality.
- For instance, a child is unlikely to benefit from an immersion program with a poor instructor, compared to a partial learning program from a very good instructor
TRUTH: If you can't afford an expensive immersion program, devote 60+ hours a week teaching a second language, or you didn't teach your child from an extremely early age, this does not mean your child can't become fluent in a second language.
Myth 3: The Myth of Bilingualism and Language Impairment
There is a myth that if a child already has language difficulties in his or her primary language, it will make things much worse to try to teach that child a second language.
In other words, if your child has language difficulties in their primary language, should you give up on trying to teach that child a second language?
- The current research suggests that children with language difficulties who are exposed to a second language (even those children who are put in language immersion programs) are not put at risk for a more serious language impairment in their primary language.
- They may still have difficulties in both languages, but not any more than they would with only their primary language.
- In fact, research shows that those who are typically disadvantaged in academics (i.e. lower socioeconomic status, minority ethic groups) still benefit from second language learning, despite hardships.
TRUTH: Parents of children with language learning difficulties should not be discouraged from trying to teach their children a second language – they won't make the problem worse and can benefit the child.
Myth 4: The Myth of Minority Language Students
There is a myth that children who speak a minority language at home should try to “switch” to the majority-culture language as soon as possible in order to succeed in school and be more mainstream
This causes many parents who speak a minority language to discourage the use of their heritage language at home (even if the parents are not fluent in the majority language), thinking it will harm the children in the long run.
It is true that knowing the majority language can benefit children in school.
However, if parents don't know the majority language well enough to teach it to their children, they're unlikely to make that big of an impact.
- In fact, it's better in the long run for parents to form loving, warm, communicative bonds with children from an early age. This requires the ability to fully express things in language. If parents can more easily do this in a heritage language, then they should!
Recent research also suggests that being fluent in a minority heritage language is not a “drag” on subsequent majority language-learning.
- In fact, knowing a heritage language can enhance learning a majority language.
- If early classroom instruction is partially in the heritage language, this can be beneficial to students as they transition to the majority language (though this may not be available to everyone).
TRUTH: Parents should not be afraid to speak a minority heritage language at home. It does not necessary “damage” the children's chances at academic success in the long run.