Raising a bilingual child: The top five myths


bilingual-baby

Myths about raising a child with more than one language abound. Sometimes parents are discouraged from doing so. They’re told it can lead to confusion and speech delays, or that they’ve missed the window of opportunity.

For many parents, bilingualism is a sign of intelligence, and also gives children an advantage in their studies or future career opportunities. Research has shown that being bilingual can have other cognitive advantages as well, which is making many parents jump on the bilingual bandwagon.

But it wasn’t too long ago that many educators had misgivings about raising children in a bilingual or multilingual household. As a result, many families, especially immigrants, were encouraged to only use one language at home, as to not cause confusion and speech delays for children. Many parents living and working abroad also become discouraged when their children don’t speak to them in their native language any more, and give up completely.

So what is really going on? What is the final word on raising your kids to be bilingual?

Here are the most common myths – and the real story behind raising a child to be bilingual.

1. Growing up with more than one language confuses children.

This is by far the most prevalent of all the misconceptions. Some parents think that if a child is exposed to two languages at the same time, he might become confused and not be able to differentiate between them.

“From just days after birth, all infants can tell the difference between many languages,” says Barbara Zurer Pearson, author of Raising a Bilingual Child. She says this is especially true when the languages are quite different from each other – as different, for example, as French and Arabic.

“At that young age, infants generally still have trouble telling two very similar languages apart, like English from Dutch. But by about 6 months of age, they can do that too,” she says.

The confusion myth is probably the result of older research that looked at poorly designed studies and drew the conclusion that early exposure to two languages put children at a disadvantage. This research prompted educators to push immigrant parents to drop their heritage language and emphasize proficiency in English.

2. Raising a child to be bilingual leads to speech delays.

Some children raised bilingual do take a little longer to start talking than those raised in monolingual households. The delay is temporary, however, and according to experts, it’s not a general rule.

Unfortunately, parents who raise concerns about the speech development of their bilingual child are often told to stick to one language. This happens because in the past, bilingualism was considered the culprit in problems with language development.

“Research indicates that bilingualism does not cause delays in either speech or language acquisition,” says Ellen Stubbe Kester, president of Bilinguistics, which offers bilingual speech-language services in Austin, Texas.

Even if your child has already been diagnosed with some kind of speech delay, raising him bilingual won’t make his speech any more delayed.

“Studies have found that children with language delays who are in dual language environments gain language at the same rate as those in monolingual environments,” says Kester.

3. Bilingual children end up mixing the two languages.

Mixing languages is both inevitable and harmless. But to some unfamiliar with bilingualism, it’s proof that the child can’t really tell the languages apart.

Most children who are raised bilingual do resort to mixing as they sort out both languages. In addition, one of the languages often has a stronger influence on the child than the other. Kids who have a smaller vocabulary in the minority language may draw on words from the majority language as needed.

Experts agree that mixing is temporary. Eventually, it goes away as a child’s vocabulary develops in both languages and he has more exposure to each one.

In actuality, bilingual speakers of all ages mix their languages (also known as code-switching). A perfect example is the widespread use of Spanglish (mixing English and Spanish) by Latinos in the United States.

“Sometimes people do it because they don’t know a word they need in the language they’re speaking,” says Pearson. “Some people mix on purpose because they like the word or phrase in the other language better.”

Children model what they see and hear, so if your child lives in an environment in which mixing languages is the norm, expecting him not to do so is unrealistic.

4. It’s too late to raise your child bilingual.

It’s never too late – or too early – to introduce your child to a second language.

“Learning a second language is easier for children under 10, and even easier for children under 5, compared with the much greater effort it takes adults,” says Pearson.

The optimal time, according to experts, seems to be from birth to 3 years – exactly when a child is learning his first language, and his mind is still open and flexible.

The next best time for learning a second language appears to be when kids are between 4 and 7 years old, because they can still process multiple languages on parallel paths. In other words, they build a second language system alongside the first and learn to speak both languages like a native.

If your child is older than 7 and you’ve been thinking about raising him bilingual, it’s still not too late. The third best time for learning a second language is from about age 8 to puberty. After puberty, studies show, 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.

“We hear so much about the special ‘window of opportunity’ for young children to learn two languages that it can be discouraging to the older child,” says Pearson. “It’s true that it’s easier to start earlier, but people can learn a second language even after the window has closed.”

5. Children are like sponges, and they’ll become bilingual without effort and in no time.

Although it’s easier for children to learn a new language the earlier they’re exposed to it, even then it doesn’t happen by osmosis. It’s unrealistic to expect your child to learn Spanish by watching countless episodes of Dora the Explorer on television.

Learning a language doesn’t have to be a chore. But introducing a second language to your children does require some kind of structure and, most important, consistency, whether it’s through day-to-day conversation or formal instruction. The idea is to expose them to language learning in meaningful and interesting ways that are connected to real life.

Get ideas and strategies for raising a bilingual child in Raising a bilingual child: Fun, music, and games.

Were you raised in a bilingual environment, or are you raising your children to be bilingual?

Have you heard these myths from teachers or friends?

Do you think being bilingual is difficult for children?

We love to read your comments below!

This was written by Bilingual freelance journalist Roxana A. Soto who is the co-founder and co-editor of SpanglishBaby, a website for parents raising bilingual and bicultural children.

How is technology changing Language Teaching?


We asked Simon Brewster, Deputy Director General at The Anglo Mexican Foundation, his views on the way that technology is changing the way we teach languages…

As far as technology is concerned, there are obvious advantages for learners in terms of access to information, greater communicability and the reality of learning outside the classroom.

Where I think we need to be careful is in not assuming that technology somehow replaces the need for good teaching. It is in the end another tool at our disposal but you can still have a bad class even with technology.

I am also not convinced that the use of online courses and whiteboards is any more effective in terms of learning than using more traditional tools. No-one has been able to provide any evidence that they are. If it is true that you can learn a language using different approaches and methodologies, I think it is also true that you can learn a language with a fairly minimal amount of material and equipment.

I would say that good teaching affects learning much more than the technology available. I went to an interesting talk which contrasted e-centric teachers with t-(as in teaching) centric teachers which made the same point.

It is also not the case that everyone has access to technology. Mexico has 80 million cell phones but relatively few people have access to the most sophisticated technology outside the more privileged groups.

In the case of formal education, our pupils cannot take cell phones into class for obvious reasons. A lot of technology they use is for socializing not study or reading: facebook, twitter, text messaging etc.

Where I do see technology having a significant impact is in areas such as intranets which connect students, teachers and parents, access to Internet for research purposes and support from websites for everything from making a poster to producing video and the fact that technology makes everything much faster.

For our students in the language teaching centres, as opposed to schools, we are focusing on getting teachers to encourage students to use existing components such as CD-Roms and course related websites at the same time as we develop a support website for students to consult as a value added element to their courses. We will do this at low cost including elements that are available at low or no cost.

I have to mention that aside from cost issues – a whiteboard comes in at around US$300 – there are big security issues with technology for schools as well as related questions of cyber bullying. We have experienced problems in both of these areas and are now very active in raising awareness in pupils about the risks of social networking online.

By Simon Brewster

The Anglo Mexican Foundation

www.tamf.org.mx

Do you share Simon’s experiences? Please let us know your thoughts…

What is Blended Learning?


Firstly, lets make it clear that currently, there is no consensus on a single agreed-upon definition for blended learning. However in ELT it often refers to ‘the combination of diverse delivery channels and teaching tools as part of course design’ (from ELT World Wiki).

Blended Learning usually involves a combination of classroom learning, online learning and/or mobile learning. The degree of integration of these components depends on the course design .

So, what are the benefits?

An article by Mobl21 states that  a blended learning course’s aim (from a pedagogical perspective), is to combine the best of classroom face-to-face learning with online learning experiences, enabling:
  • An opportunity for students to practise technology skills in navigating online course materials and possibility creating digital content for assignments.
  • An increase in student-instructor and student-student interaction through the use of course-communication tools like, discussion forums.
  • The ability to reserve face-to-face time for interactive activities, such as higher-level discussions, small group work, debates, demonstrations, or lab activities.

From a student perspective, the appeal of blended learning includes:

  • Flexibility of schedule: learn any time, anywhere.
  • Control: students have some level of control over the pacing of their learning. Difficult concepts can be reviewed as often as necessary.
  • Convenience of an online class with many of the social aspects of a face-to-face class.

Blended learning gives learners and teachers a potential environment to achieve more, through a greater reach and accessibility of educational material.

Ok, so how do I start using it?

There are many blended learning courses for ELT already available, so unless you are planning to develop your own, all you need to do is choose one! Find out how you can use blended learning with specific publishers by following these links:

Richmond Digital

Macmillan Digital

Oxford University Press Digital

You may also find these links useful:

BEBC Digital ELT Resource Glossary

British Council Blended Learning

Blended MEC

Or you can give us a call on +44 (0)333 800 1900 to find out what digital components are available for the course you’re using!