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Common Myths and Misconceptions about Bilingual Children #3: Young children soak up languages like sponges.

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 #3: Young children soak up languages like sponges.

Reality: Children seem to have an easier time learning languages than adults, but we should not underestimate the effort it takes and should not expect them to learn perfectly from the beginning.

Actually some second language learners go through a silent stage when they first start to learn a new language (for sure in adults and even with children).  Some of my students this school year spent between 2-4 months in their silent stage.  Are these students “soaking up” all the language they are hearing or are they just trying to resist the exhausting task of learning in this new language?  Some might say that they are indeed like “sponges.” Even though they are not talking in the target language, they seem to be learning more vocabulary words, grammar structures, etc all the time.  Then all of a sudden the silent-stage ends and the student starts talking one day in class.  “Where did all this language come from?” you might be asking yourself. “Did they take everything in like a sponge?”

I can see then why adults seem to think that all the students need to do is just be “immersed” in the target language and they will learn it.  That is not necessarily true for adults though.  Many teachers live in one country for two years, let’s say, and come away from that experience learning very little of the host country language.  It is definitely a myth to say that to learn a new language you must simply go and live in a country that speaks that language.  Then you will learn the second language just by being there.

I think the key with students learning the target language faster than adults is that they are going to school (their job) every day for 7-8 hours, speaking and interacting in that target language. If you are an adult and the majority of your day isn’t you speaking and interacting in the target language, then the odds are that you will be acquiring the language much slower.  Also, many people believe that if children are very proficient in their mother tongue, that the learning of the 2nd language will indeed go much faster.  If that was true though then adults could also in theory be learning languages just as fast as we are all very proficient in our first language; that is if the majority of their day was them speaking and interacting in the target language.

What do you think about the topic of children learning languages faster than adults? Please share your comments. How fast are the students learning English at the international school you work at?