Before and after my child was born, I heard several comments regarding his linguistic development. Some of these comments were related to potential speech delays, language confusion, and possibly lagging behind peers in the community language when formal schooling starts.
Now, why would people make these comments? Well, some people may have little to no experience with bilingual parenting, and some may have had difficulties learning a foreign language and, therefore, it seems like an arduous task for a child.
With that being said, I believe many of these comments came from a genuine place of concern and kindness. However, these same comments can be discouraging for some parents who wish to raise their children as bilingual.
Today, I will share three of the most common comments I heard about bilingual children and explain why you should ignore them.
1.“I think he is confused because he is mixing his language”
The belief that children mixing their language is a sign that they are confused is an ongoing misconception. According to Dr. Fred Genesee (2009), professor of psychology at McGill University, mixing language does not reflect the bilingual’s ability to separate languages but is a natural and expected part of their bilingual development. This use of language is called codemixing.
Children who are raised with multiple languages sometimes mix them because of a lexical gap—when they are speaking one language and may not know a certain word, they borrow from another language. Even adult bilingual speakers will do this. So while it may seem as though they are confused, it is par for the course in their growth. Additionally, children are very pragmatic when borrowing from another language and often choose the easier option by using a word from the dominant language.
In my personal experience, my bilingual boy has mixed Japanese and English since he could talk. However, something happened when he hit four years old: the mixing of the languages gradually decreased. Now, at five years old, he switches back and forth with little to no mixing.
If you hear this comment, you may want to choose to ignore it.
2. “He will likely speak late because he is exposed to two languages”
Some people believe that children who are exposed to two or more languages will experience language delays or language disorders. I have even heard this comment quite a few times from parents who are interested in raising their children as bilinguals but decide not to expose their children to their minority language because they fear the child will begin speaking later than peers. However, research shows that milestones for language development are the same in all languages. That means that by age one, most children can say at least one word, and their language increases as they get older.
The reality is that delays are common in all children, whether they be monolingual, bilingual, or trilingual. While delays can happen to all children, that doesn’t mean that your child cannot have a language delay or disorder because he is exposed to one or two languages. If your intuition as a parent says something is wrong, please find a specialist immediately and have your child examined.
In my family, my bilingual boy spoke his first word at one year old and had never looked back when it comes to talking. I sometimes have to ask him to give my ears a break! Conversely, some relatives of ours had a monolingual child who could not put two words together at two and a half years old. Now, at four years old, he has no problems with his speech. The point I’m trying to make is that language delays are not exclusive to bilingual children.
According to De Houwer (1999), a research scientist who has done multiple investigations into language development in bilingual children, ‘There is no scientific evidence to date that hearing two or more languages leads to delays or disorders in language acquisition. Many, many children throughout the world grow up with two or more languages from infancy without showing any signs of language delays or disorder” (p. 1).
3. “He will be behind when he goes to elementary school”
For some, using the minority language means that it will have a negative impact on the dominant language when the child starts formal schooling. Some believe that when a child is exposed to another language at home, he will not acquire the community language and will lag behind his peers. As a parent, I would not want my child to be behind over something he and I can control. No parent wants that!
Most bilingual children who are lagging do catch up to their peers after age five, and many go on to do very well academically. According to Professor Francois Grosjean (2000), a world-renowned psycholinguist and specialist on bilingualism, the idea that the language spoken in the home will have a negative effect on the child acquiring the community language is wrong. He further states that the language used at home can be used as a linguistic base for acquiring aspects of the other language. More importantly, he says using a home language gives children a known language to communicate in with parents while acquiring the other.
I remember a family friend who was an elementary school teacher telling us that my son’s Japanese skills will be way below his peers’ level when he enters elementary school because we were only using English at home. The friend inferred that he would be left behind. If I weren’t an avid reader and a stubborn person, I would have stopped speaking to my bilingual boy in English. These comments are some that immigrant families often hear from educators which force them to speak the community language to their children. As a result, their children end up not learning the minority or heritage language.
Many individuals are not familiar with bilingual-child upbringing, especially if the child is being raised in a monolingual community. However, what you need to do as a parent is read as much as can on the topic, talk to people who are raising bilingual children, and beware of these comments that can impact your attempt at bilingual parenting.
How about you? What comments have you heard regarding bilingual parenting?
De Houwer, A. (1999). Two or more languages in early childhood: Some general points and practical recommendations. Eric Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Washington DC. https://www.ericdigests.org/2000-2/two.htm
Genesee, F. H. (2009). Early childhood bilingualism: Perils and possibilities. Journal of Applied Research on Learning. 2(Special Issue), 1–21. https://on.cpf.ca/wp-content/blogs.dir/1/files/Early-Childhood-Bilingualism-Perils-and-Possibilities-Fred-Genesee-April-09.pdf
Grosjean, F. (2000). Myths about bilingualism. Francois Grosjean https://www.francoisgrosjean.ch/myths_en.html