Eight Myths About Multilingual Kids
People are well-meaning, but they often operate from their beliefs rather than the facts. When you talk about raising a multilingual child, you will no doubt hear some of these myths and misconceptions.
“Multilingualism is nice but uncommon.”
Estimates suggest that 75 percent of the world’s population speaks more than one language. That means that despite the fact that most western cultures are monolingual, the majority of the world is multilingual. Many children learn one or more regional or tribal language at the same time they learn the official language of the country where they live.
“Learn one language properly first and teach other languages later.”
This is not only wrong, but totally counterproductive. After having already learned one language, it takes effort, more interaction, and motivation to learn a second language. Studies have concluded that learning them simultaneously is magnitudes easier for both baby and parents.
“At this age, becoming multilingual is too late.”
Children can always learn another language, at any age—as can adults. Granted, it is easier during the early critical period. But, creating a more stimulating learning environment will jump start your little language student no matter when he starts.
“You will confuse a child by raising it with two or more languages.”
This is an old belief prevalent in monolingual countries, and it’s a belief that has almost become political. Rest assured that your child’s little brain has more than enough horsepower to cope with two languages (or more) without affecting the dominant language. This has been proven by decades of research and countless families around the world, including the many bilingual countries where multilingualism is the norm, not the exception: Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, and Finland, just to name a few.
More multilingual myths—>
“Bilingual maybe, but more than two languages doesn’t work.”
Considering how much babies have to learn in their first five years, another language doesn’t really add much to the load. As long as they get consistent interaction, they will have no trouble learning more than one language. Practical examples show that it’s usually only when more than four languages are taught simultaneously that it starts to be difficult to provide the child with enough exposure in all of the languages. However, it really depends upon the parents, not the intellectual capacity of the child. In some cases, getting enough exposure to two languages can be challenging enough. But there is no reason whatsoever to believe that learning more than one language is anything but a positive experience for your baby.
“No one else we know grew up knowing more than one language.”
Well, isn’t it about time, then? All jokes aside, family pressure is not to be underestimated. Be firm, patiently explain why it makes sense for you, and make your own choices for your child. Remember that whatever advice others give you, you are ultimately the one responsible. Reason and hard facts generally stand the test of time better than mere opinions about your child’s well-being.
“Your child will mix the languages together.”
Yes, some mixing will occur, but it is both harmless and temporary. As the child increases her vocabulary in each language, this phenomenon automatically disappears, just as a monolingual child will automatically fix mistakes after correct usage is learned. For example, children who are only learning English often begin by saying, “Me want” rather than “I want.” Eventually, they learn what is correct. The same is true of multilingual children.
“Oh, don’t worry. They’ll pick it up in no-time!”
People sometimes think any exposure is enough, even a minimal amount like a play group once a week, watching TV or buying dolls that talk a foreign language. “Children need to be exposed to a different language for at least 30 percent of their waking hours to become bilingual,” says Fred Genesee, a professor of psycholinguistics at McGill University in Montreal. “Less exposure may allow the child to comprehend but not speak a second language. Learning a second language is simple for children, relative to adults,” he says, “but it won’t happen overnight.”
Christina Bosemark is the founder of the Multilingual Children’s Association. Learn more about language learning from the Multilingual Children's Association.