Myths of Raising a Bilingual Child

In a world of nearly 7,000 distinct languages, mass globalization, and melting pot of cultures—bilingualism in our world’s youth is widespread. In today's global village, bilingualism has its inherent strengths; however it is also something that requires understanding and learning about bilingual language development by parents and educators.

“Bilingualism describes individuals who possess fluency in two languages with strong vocabulary, syntax skills and listening proficiency in each respective language.”

Many articles on raising children to be bilingual contain advice to parents about what to expect with children learning a second language… and almost every article contains “Myths of raising bilingual children.” Upon mental absorption these alleged truths, many parents grow fearful of raising children in a dual-language household. This was true for a Rasmussen College General Education Coordinator, Kari Nollendorfs—who is a mother to three multilingual children proficient in Latvian, German and English. She notes, “Each day, my eldest daughter did the smallest thing that seemed to disprove the myths of bilingualism—those same myths that were so blatantly were stated by experts. Needless to say—her resilience to these myths took my breath away.”

From household to classroom—here is a case study on disproving myths of raising a bilingual child—

1. Exposing a child to multiple languages causes language delay.

Some sources cite that bilingualism can lead to language delay, but studies point to the fact that monolingual and bilingual children reach language development milestones simultaneously. According to Nollendorfs, “I now know this to be a myth. We held our breath, but our daughter managed to start speaking at around 10 months old.”

2. Mixing languages is a sign of confusion.

Children’s brains are informational sponges. They take in stimuli everyday—and learn to organize their thoughts and linguistics very well. Nollendorfs notes, “It is my experience that children don’t care what you call an object. Just give them the cookie.”

3. A parent must be fluent in the target language in order to raise her child bilingual.

Classrooms have evolved over time to meet the needs of the ever-increasing multi-lingual and cultural population by offering language courses as early as kindergarten. Nollendorfs references a personal anecdote: “One of our favorite games to play in the car was “Mama says… and Papa says.” I would start with “Mama says tree and Papa says . . .” And my children would have to fill in the correct Latvian word. It didn’t even matter if I knew the word or not. My children would correct each other.”

4. Children will just absorb the language like a sponge.

One lesson we’ve learned is that raising bilingual children is hard work. It takes a conscious effort every single day. If children don’t have reasons to use each language, then they won’t.  My family and I spend a huge portion of the day repeating these phrases in Latvian “What are you supposed to say?” or, “Ask again please in Latvian,” and “Say it again in Latvian.”

5. More than two languages will confuse the child.

When bilingual child attempt to learn a third language, they will actually progress faster. “At the ages of three and four years old, our children went on their first trip to Germany. I attempted to speak as much German with them as possible,” notes Nollendorfs.

6. Children can learn language through watching television.

Though this method can aid in language retention—it is essential to learn beyond the screen. Learning modalities could include games, activities, and repeating phrases, as mentioned above.

7. They will need English as a Second Language when they start school.

So what does this teach us as educators and parents? Nollendorfs answers, “Of all the people in the world, I should have been easily convinced of my ability to raise my children to be bilingual.  When reality came, it was much harder than I had expected, but the hardest thing for me was to trust my gut and know in my heart that I was doing the right thing, even though the world and my children sometimes tried to disprove me. But I now know the evidence was merely anecdotal and some of the biggest myths of bilingual children were soundly dispelled at our household.”

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Kari Nollendorfs is a General Education Coordinator at Rasmussen College in Minnesota; where she assists students seeking degrees online and on campus. She has worked in the field of language teaching for more than 19 years. Kari also has a Master's degree in Applied English Linguistics and a Bachelor's degree in Education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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