Myth #2: Bilingualism will interfere with a child’s language acquisition

bilingualism

Welcome back, friends, to the second installment of Myth Mondays! If you’re new to the blog, welcome! Check out my post on myth #1, as well as this post on “The Many Faces of Bilingual.”

Today, we’ll be addressing another common misconception: bilingualism will interfere with children’s language acquisition.

A few well-intentioned (and well-educated) friends of ours, upon learning that D. and I only speak in Spanish to our daughter E., commented with evident concern, “Oh, but when will she practice English? Won’t that interfere with her learning English?”

Although my instant reaction was hidden frustration, I reminded myself that their comments – made in love – stemmed from a misunderstanding of bilingualism and language acquisition. So, instead of taking a stance of superiority and chiding people for these comments, I’d like to address the misunderstanding that exposure to two or more languages confuses children.

bilingualism

What do we know about child language acquisition and development? Where can we separate the fact from the fiction? To clarify this myth we must turn to the experts in bilingualism. (I’m such a nerd! I’ve pulled out all of my old notes, lectures, and textbooks from grad school to help us demystify this myth!)

First, let me preface by saying the human brain is an amazing human organism, capable of infinite possibilities, including learning multiple languages.

bilingualism

Research in language acquisition has shown that, although there is some variability of the rate that bilingual children acquire both languages, all major linguistic milestones are met at around the same time as their monolingual peers (Grosjean 2012; King and Mackey 2007). Bilingual children:

  • Start babbling (e.g., “ba ba” and “da da”) at around the same age as their monolingual peers (Oller 1997).
  • Begin producing one- and two-word utterances at around the same age as those children who only speak one language: eleven months ( Doyle, Champagne, Segalowitz 1978).
  • Can discriminate among the different sounds in both languages (this, even though they have to discriminate among more sounds than their monolingual peers).
  • Show the traditional …”‘lexical spurt[s]’ (when vocabulary increases suddenly)…” (Barbara Zurer Pearson and Sylvia Fernandez, via Grosjean 2012).

Just as there is variability in language development among monolingual children, so too is each bilingual child different, acquiring both languages at different rates.

bilingualism

“Okay, I understand all of that, Audrey, but what about the sheer math of it all?” D. asked me over the weekend as I read him parts of this post.

“Think about it: if E.’s monolingual English-speaking cousins hear English at BOTH home AND at school/church/neighborhood, while E. hears English only half of the time, won’t she logically have less vocabulary than her cousins by the time she enters school?”

I think D. echoes a common – and legitimate – question that many bilingual families wonder (and may hear from their monolingual peers). Again, we turn to research for the answer.

In their book, The Bilingual Edge, researchers Kendall King, PhD and Alison Mackey, PhD, state that a bilingual child’s initial smaller vocabulary at an early age is generally overcome by the age of four or five. In fact, when added together at this age, a bilingual child’s two vocabularies surpass that of their monolingual peers!

bilingualism

As a parent raising young bilingual (or, multilingual) children, you may be wondering at this point, “How can I help my child best develop both languages and be prepared for school so that he/she is on target for academic success?”

Bilingual children must receive more than just basic input (simple vocabulary) in both languages in order for them to remain on target in BOTH languages compared to their monolingual peers.

The research is clear: the development of languages X and Y is directly related to the quality and quantity of input a child receives. All types of bilingualism require effort: are we reading to and with our children on a daily basis? Are we singing with them? Using the language of play? Do our children hear us use language X/Y with other adults? Does our greater community (neighborhood, school, church, mosque, etc.) support the language?

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And, then it clicked.

When I re-read the above paragraph to myself this past Saturday, I literally jumped out of my chair, dropped my highlighter, and ran to find D. in the next room, shouting: “This is why it’s so important we both speak in Spanish to E.! This is why I want her to attend a bilingual school! This is why I organize so many Spanish play dates! Input, input, input!”

In my humble nine weeks as a parent I am coming to understand that, although I cannot control (e.g., E., why are you now waking up at 4:30am every day??), I can give.

I can give mi hija opportunities to read, listen, speak, play, sing, and enjoy español, knowing that far from being confused, she will flourish.

bilingualism

So, to conclude, I’d like to echo what bilingualism researcher François Grosjean states in his book Bilingual: Life and Reality:

“It is crucial that parents, and also professionals who are involved with bilingual children, learn about bilingualism.”

This is my hope in writing “Myth Mondays.”

Interested in learning more about bilingualism? Check out my resources page on the blog.

And, as always, drop me a line. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

7 thoughts on “Myth #2: Bilingualism will interfere with a child’s language acquisition

  1. Pingback: Myth #3: Code-switching means you’re not a true bilingual | Españolita...¡sobre la marcha!

  2. Pingback: Interview with Andrés Salguero (part 1) + Giveaway! | Españolita...¡sobre la marcha!

  3. Pingback: Myth #5: All you need is exposure | Españolita...¡sobre la marcha!

  4. Pingback: The Many Faces of Bilingual, part 2 | Españolita...¡sobre la marcha!

  5. Pingback: Our Journey Through Bilingual Parenting | The Mother Overload

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