Parents

Myths About Raising A Bilingual Child

There is an overwhelming amount of information about every aspect of parenting, from what you should be feeding your child to electronic device exposure. The topic of raising a bilingual child is no exception. Whilst many parents (whether they themselves are monolingual or bilingual) would like to raise a bilingual child, there are several factors that can influence how easy the process is and your chances of success. This includes the community within which you live (whether you have family and friends who speak the second language) and your partner’s and your own proficiency in the second language.

In an ideal scenario, you may have moved to your current country of residence in your teenage years or as an adult, having achieved native or near-native fluency in Cantonese and written Chinese. You may have a partner who also has native fluency and a support network of family and friends who can help to immerse your child in the language and culture. Conversely, if you have limited fluency in Cantonese, a partner who doesn’t speak the language, and do not have a support network who can help to expose your child to the language, raising a bilingual child becomes more challenging.

Whatever your situation, it undoubtedly takes a great deal of parental commitment and dedication to encourage bilingualism in your child.

There is a myriad of articles and blog posts about how to raise a bilingual child. In particular, I found the book ‘The Bilingual Edge’ helped to challenge some of my pre-existing misconceptions. Written by Kendall King and Alison Mackey, two linguistics professors at Georgetown University in the US (who are naturally also teaching their children a second language), they write about ‘the bilingual edge’ i.e. the advantages of being bilingual. They also wade through the hype and provide insights into what actually works in helping a child learning a second language. In their book, they dispel ten myths about second language learning, listed below:

Top 10 myths about second language learning

  1. Only bilingual parents can raise bilingual children (and bilingual parents always raise bilingual children).
  2. I’m too late! You have to start very early for second language learning, or you will miss the boat.
  3. Only native speakers and teachers can teach children second languages.
  4. Children who are raised in the same family will have the same language skills as one another.
  5. It’s important to correct errors as soon as they appear in grammar and vocabulary (to prevent the formation of bad habits).
  6. Exposing my child to two languages means she will be a late talker.
  7. Mixing languages is a sign of confusion, and languages must stay separate (one-parent–one-language parenting is the best way).
  8. Television, DVDs, and edutainment, like talking toys, are great ways to pick up some languages.
  9. Bilingual education programs are for non-English speakers.
  10. Two languages are the most to which a very young child should be exposed.

Only bilingual parents can raise bilingual children (and bilingual parents always raise bilingual children). Firstly, they point out that if bilingual parents always raise bilingual children, there would be hundreds of thousands of US citizens speaking at least two languages. In reality, they point out that second-generation immigrants are often bilingual but third-generation immigrants often only speak English. Raising a bilingual child takes planning, effort and dedication, even for parents who themselves are bilingual.

I’m too late! You have to start very early for second language learning, or you will miss the boat. Although young children pick up languages quickly and may have an advantage in terms of accent, older children and adults can still make great progress and achieve high levels of success.

Only native speakers and teachers can teach children second languages. King and Mackey elaborate that the value lies in the interaction, and it is dynamic and meaningful interaction with speakers of that language that help to teach a child the language.

Children who are raised in the same family will have the same language skills as one another. This seems intuitive. Parents have more one-on-one time to spend with their first-born child, including time spent speaking a second language. A second child interacts with their parents but also their older sibling, who will often introduce English into the conversation. As such, a first-born child is much more likely to be bilingual than a second-born or third-born child.

It’s important to correct errors as soon as they appear in grammar and vocabulary (to prevent the formation of bad habits). I am guilty of this, and was surprised to learn that errors should not always be corrected and should often be ignored, as the value is in learning to communicate in the second language. Judiciously correcting errors can have a detrimental effort by eroding a child’s confidence and willingness to try to communicate in the second language.

Exposing my child to two languages means she will be a late talker. This is an apparently common myth that is still perpetuated by healthcare workers. According to King and Mackey, learning two languages is not a cause of language delay.

Mixing languages is a sign of confusion, and languages must stay separate (one-parent–one-language parenting is the best way). Mixing languages is a normal phase of bilingual language development that will pass. I’ve read a lot of positive things about one-parent-one-language and it seems to work for many families. King and Mackey are not saying it doesn’t work – just that there is more than one approach. Interestingly, ‘Chinglish’ is actually called code-switching, where multilinguals will alternate between two or more languages when conversing with one another.

Television, DVDs, and edutainment, like talking toys, are great ways to pick up some languages. Children do not learn much language through edutainment compared with in-person interaction, so edutainment should be thought of as a supplemental resource for older children.

Bilingual education programs are for non-English speakers. Bilingual education programs can be beneficial for all children.

Two languages are the most to which a very young child should be exposed. The more languages, the merrier!

Although ‘The Bilingual Edge’ was published in 2007, it remains very topical with some useful strategies. The book approaches the topic of bilingualism from an academic standpoint, which I found refreshing. It certainly has made me re-think my approach (such as always correcting errors) and reflect on why I want my child to be bilingual. As King and Mackey write, ‘language is a lifelong process in many respects’. Unlike other milestones, such as learning to walk, it is never ‘done’ and finished. However, on the plus side, it is never too late.

King, K. and Mackey A. (2007). The Bilingual Edge: Why, When, and How to Teach Your Child a Second Language. Harper Collins.