International School Community Blog

Common Myths and Misconceptions about Bilingual Children #5: You have to be gifted in languages in order to learn two languages at once.

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 #5: You have to be gifted in languages in order to learn two languages at once.

Reality: Early language learning is not like a talent and does not require a special gift; it’s part of being human, like walking or seeing with two eyes.

Sometimes it seems like everyone except for you has the “gift” of learning languages when living abroad. These people that you are secretly jealous of appear to be acquiring proficiency of the local language at a very rapid speed while you are learning at a very slow and disconcerting pace.  We get caught up in this idea of how the “stars are aligning”(apparently) for others that are really good at communicating with the locals.  But we are forgetting that these people are also the ones that are taking language classes two times a week.  They are studying and doing their homework from their languages classes on the bus or train ride before and after school each day.  They are the ones that are getting themselves out, which means they are meeting and interacting with the locals…especially the locals who are not even able to speak in English. The list goes on too…as there are still more things that could greatly improve your chances of becoming a near-bilingual with your home language and the host-country language.

So, it is understandable that those without the “gift” think that way about themselves as most of the time they are not taking the necessary steps that would move them in the direction of achieving a high proficiency in the target language. Those struggling with language learning are so sure though that they don’t have the ability to learn languages and become defeated in encounters in the second language and, in general, want to just give up and stop trying sometimes.  Which brings up other factors that come into play for struggling language learners wanting to become a bilingual: the lack of motivation to learn and interact in the target language, not giving enough time in the day to learn the language, not being able to achieve a close enough accent using correct pronunciation, etc.

Young learners don’t have to worry about those factors, especially in a school environment.  Though some second language learner students go through a silent language (which might include some lack of motivation to learn (in English) during class lessons), they typically get through that stage fairly quickly and move forward with learning the target language very quickly (like “learning how to walk or seeing with two eyes” as Multilingual living has stated).  Because the young learners (future bilinguals) are applying all the factors that positively affect their gaining proficiency level in the target language (e.g. spending more time in the day to practice the language, talking in the language duing lunch/break time, studying and inquiring into the language at least 5 days a week, etc.), they are achieving quick and high success in their language learning.  This time of faster acquisition directly relates with these learners’ motivation.  When motivation is high, then the sky is the limit and achieving true bilingualism is indeed a nearing reality. Anyone can do just this, in theory, even those who are adults and those without the “gift”.

What do you think about the topic of having the “gift” of learning languages? Please share your comments. How many people with the “gift” are working at the international school you work at?