12 Common Myths and Misconceptions about Bilingual Children

Common Myths and Misconceptions about Bilingual Children #4: Bilinguals are like two monolinguals in one person

June 24, 2012

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 #4: Bilinguals are like two monolinguals in one person

Reality: There are special capabilities that bilinguals have that monolinguals do not. Bilinguals very often have one (dominant) language that is compatible to that of a monolingual and another, weaker one, which they use less often. In any conversation, bilinguals choose whether to operate in a bilingual mode or a monolingual mode.

One time a director told me that there was a true bilingual person working at the international school I was working at six years ago. This teacher had been born in a Spanish-speaking country, so she grew up speaking Spanish at home and in her community.  During her childhood, she attended an international school actually, an international school in was in the same Spanish-speaking country.  She was learning mostly in English there, but still taking classes in Spanish and most likely speaking in Spanish in the hallways, with her friends, and on the playground.  Then after her formal schooling she ended up living in Los Angeles for many years, so she was in a English-speaking country now, but the surrounding community was also very Spanish.  She started teaching in that city in their public school system, and I am sure that she had many students in her class who were from Spanish-speaking backgrounds as well.

During her time in Los Angeles, she met her partner who was a man from Argentina…another native Spanish speaker, though he knew English as well from living in the United States for some time.  From Los Angeles she and her partner moved back to live in the country she was raised in and took a job as a teacher at the international school she attended when she was younger (what an interesting turn of events!).  In turn, she was back speaking her native tongue in the Spanish-speaking country she was born in, living with her native Spanish-speaking husband, and working at a school where she would be using Spanish and English on a daily basis.

Is this teacher a true bilingual?  She did seem to be acting like two monolinguals in one person as she has had opportunities to develop both languages to a very high proficiency level due to her experiences moving around the world, having a partner that was bilingual as well, and teaching in schools that encouraged the learning of both languages.  The myth though, however, states that bilinguals are not like two monolinguals in one person.  I suppose then that is true, mostly because the “power” of one language surely dominated the other depending on the living and work situation of the person.  It is complicated being a “true” bilingual and I am sure it is not crystal clear on the abilities of each language at a specific moment in a bilingual’s life.  The proficiency levels of each language are most likely always in flux and constantly changing. On the other hand, for this person, her proficiency level in each of her languages is and has been always very high, so the argument that one was more dominant is negligible.

For students at international schools though, they haven’t had the same amount of language experiences as an adult has had.  On the other hand, maybe they have.  Many international school students are moving around from country to country and their abilities in their native language and the other languages they know are also always in flux and constantly changing.  It would be difficult to say that an international school student at any given moment in their life is acting like two monolinguals in one person as they most likely haven’t achieved the same level of proficiency in the two languages they know and have been learning in.

What do you think about the topic of bilinguals not being like two monolinguals? Please share your comments. How many “true” bilinguals are at the international school you work at?