12 Common Myths and Misconceptions about Bilingual Children

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

May 26, 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 #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?

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12 Common Myths and Misconceptions about Bilingual Children

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

April 22, 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 #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?

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12 Common Myths and Misconceptions about Bilingual Children

Common Myths and Misconceptions about Bilingual Children #1: Bilingual children start to speak later than monolinguals.

March 20, 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 #1: Bilingual children start to speak later than monolinguals.

Reality: There is no scientific evidence supporting this. Bilinguals and monolinguals share the same wide window for normal development.

It is true that EAL students go through a silent stage when starting to learn English as an additional language.  How long they go through that silent stage is dependent on many factors.  The student’s personality might come into play, the student’s cultural background might come into play, the role of the teacher and the role of the parent all indeed play a part in the development of when a child inevitably starts to speak.

It turns out though that when raising a bilingual child, it is mostly likely that they will have the same window for starting to speak as their monolingual counterparts. There is no silent period as such for when children are starting to speak their first words at home.

If you are a parent of a bilingual child, share what you know about raising your child in terms of their language development and when they started to speak.  Who speaks what language to the child at home?  Is there a dominant language at home?  What language did the child first start to speak?

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