International School Community Blog

Common Myths and Misconceptions about Bilingual Children #7: Parents who do not speak a language perfectly will pass their errors and their accent on to their children.

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 #7: Parents who do not speak a language perfectly will pass their errors and their accent on to their children.

Reality: This might be true only if the child never heard any other speakers, which is unlikely to happen with parents who are nonnative speakers of either a majority or a minority language.

It is difficult to know what to tell international schools parents with regards to how to talk to their children.  There are many worries (from the teachers and the parents) about doing the right thing and not making any mistakes that would damage their child’s learning of a language.

If the idea is that the students at international schools learn how to speak from their teachers, the same might just be true that the teachers learn from the example of the students (for in fact, they are in the majority in the classroom).  Being that many international schools have classrooms that have students with varying levels of English proficiency, they are bound to have acquired some of the errors of the majority of the classroom (and the same goes for the teachers working with them who may also acquire those errors).

Language acquisition theory tells us that students learn most of their social language from their peers at school and at home, not necessarily from the teachers.  However, what does second language acquisition theory tells us about how much parents can influence their child’s language acquisition?

Many international schools tell their parents to continue speaking in their mother tongue to the child, and many do without even the school telling them to do so.  But the issue then is, how can the parents help support the English language acquisition of their child while they are attending an international school that has a target language of English?  International school parents do their best to help their child and their English homework.  They also do their best to provide play-dates with their native English speaking peers at school.  International school parents can also try and encourage the English acquisition of their child by providing them opportunities to interact with English by playing games, watching movies/tv, using the internet or by using various apps on their i-pad.  It is true though that they can also create certain opportunities to practice speaking with their child in English with no harm done with regards to passing on errors that they make or an accent that they are speaking in.  As the myth’s reality states: their child will have many other opportunities to listen to and interact with the target language (via various media sources, their teachers and peers, etc.) which will most likely be providing them with other model examples of the target language.  It is indeed a group effort in terms of how a child acquires a second language, it doesn’t appear to just come from the model and influence of their parents.

If you are asked about this topic by a parent at one of your next parent teacher conferences, have a discussion with him/her about this myth’s reality. Also, have a talk about the challenges that expat (bilingual) families face with regards to the delicate balance of what language they speak at home.  Parents can send a message to their child about the importance of the continuation of their mother tongue language, but they can also send a message that they can also communicate in a second (or third, fourth, etc.) language.  Enjoy the time and opportunities that may arise to interact in the target language at school.  These parents can also get the opportunity to practice in that target language and move along further in their proficiency.  Many times international school parents tell their teachers that before, their child couldn’t speak the target language so well and that they [the parents] were more proficient.  Then they are surprised to find out months later that the tables have turned and now their child knows more than them!

So, what do you think about the topic of parents not speaking a language perfectly and then potentially passing on their errors and their accent to their children? Please share your comments. Are you working at an international school right now where this topic is of current interest and attention?