International School Community Blog

Common Myths and Misconceptions about Bilingual Children #2: Bilinguals start out school behind monolinguals and they never catch up.

As teachers working in international schools, we are most likely teaching and working with bilingual children (or even more likely multilingual children).  Many international school educators also find themselves starting a family with potentially bilingual children.  We all know colleagues that have ended up finding a partner from the host country while living there, getting married to them, and then starting a family.  None of us are truly prepared to raise a multilingual family and for sure there are many questions and concerns that we have.

What is the best way then to teach and/or raise bilingual children?  What does the research say are the truths about growing up bilingual and how bilinguals acquire both languages?

On the Multilingual Living website, they have highlighted the 12 myths and misconceptions about bilingual children.

Myth #2: Bilinguals start out school behind monolinguals and they never catch up.

Reality: In fact, bilinguals tend to have faster growth curves than monolingual children.

When a student starts to learn a new (second) language, it is true that they are behind in terms of their ability in the second language.  But because of this large gap in knowledge and vocabulary when compared to their first language, that means that they have much more to learn.  When a monolingual makes a typical gain of one grade level each year, a bilingual child will typically make a 1.5 grade-level growth in one year.

Why is it then that most people think that bilingual children are not able to catch up?  I’m not for sure what the statistics are on this, but growing up bilingual is probably not common situation in households around the world.  There are still quite a few families that are growing up monolingual and stay that way throughout their lives.  The lives of international school teacher families are definitely in the minority.

Another reason people think this way might be because the language growth result isn’t immediately apparent, for it will take awhile until the bilingual children is proficient and at the same language-ability level in their second language as their first language (a few years for example).

Not always though is one of the two languages the dominant one.  Sometimes, if the child is learning two languages at their home since birth, he/she will show a relatively equal growth pattern in both languages.  However, it is not uncommon to find that bilingual children choose one of the two languages to be more dominant (especially when the child is learning mostly in one of the two languages at their school).

It is difficult to get the right balance when thinking about providing a child with the perfect language-learning environment for both languages.

If you are a parent of a bilingual child, share what you know about finding the perfect language-learning environment for the two languages of your bilingual child.  Have you found that your child has made significant faster growth curves at school because of their proficiency levels in their two languages?