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Debunking the 5 Most Common Myths About Bilingualism


Debunking the 5 Most Common Myths About Bilingualism
Debunking the 5 Most Common Myths About Bilingualism

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Bilingualism, which can be broadly defined as the ability to speak two languages fluently, is a valuable skill that offers numerous cognitive, cultural, and social benefits.


However, despite its well-documented advantages, there are still many misconceptions surrounding bilingualism that can lead to misunderstandings and misinformed decisions, especially when it comes to raising bilingual children.


In this blog post, let's debunk five of the most persistent and prevalent myths/ misconceptions about bilingualism to help parents make more informed decisions!


 

Myth 1: "Bilingualism Causes Language or Speech Delays"


Contrary to common perception, bilingualism does not delay language or speech development.


I've created a separate blog post and video to address this issue, so do check them out.




In fact, research has shown that bilingual children often reach language milestones at the same time as their monolingual peers.


One example from this body of research is a study conducted by Ellen Bialystok, a prominent expert in bilingualism and cognitive development. In an influential research paper titled "Bilingual Minds," published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest in 2009, Bialystok and her colleagues compared the language development of monolingual and bilingual children.


They found that bilingual children, despite learning two languages simultaneously, reached important language milestones – such as producing their first words and combining words into sentences – within the typical developmental timeline observed in monolingual children.


However, the study does acknowledge the well-observed fact that bilingual children and adults, in general, tend to have a smaller vocabulary in each language compared to monolinguals and may take longer to retrieve words. This could partly explain why bilingual children may be perceived as having a speech delay.


Myth 2: "Bilingualism Can Cause Language Confusion"


Another very common misconception is that bilingual children get confused between languages, leading to language mixing or difficulty in expressing themselves.


Again, I have created a blog post and video specifically addressing this topic, so do feel free to check them out if that's a topic that interests you.





However, this assertion is simply not true.


Before we look at some of the studies that back up this claim, let's first consider the fact that, according to the BBC, about 60-75% of the world's population speak two or more languages: bilingualism or even multilingualism is, obviously, a common feature across much of humanity. Is it conceivable that more than half of the world's population grew up being confused between different languages?


Now, let's take a look at the academic research in this area. A large body of research has demonstrated that children who are raised bilingual do not experience confusion between languages.


A study conducted by Fred H. Genesee in 1989 examined the language development of bilingual children. The researchers found that such children are able to differentiate between their two languages from an early age without experiencing confusion:


"... contrary to most extant interpretations, bilingual children develop differentiated language systems from the beginning and are able to use their developing languages in contextually sensitive ways." Fred H. Genesee

In another study, Barbara Z. Pearson and her team investigated how bilingual babies acquire vocabulary in two languages simultaneously. Their findings suggest that bilingual children can separate and identify words from each language without confusion.



Myth 3: "It's Too Late to Learn a Second Language After Childhood"


Another persistent misconception about bilingualism is that trying to learn a second language after early childhood is futile or, at the very least, pretty pointless.


While it is true that language acquisition tends to be easier during childhood due to the incredible neuroplasticity of a child's brain, it is never too late to learn a second language!


As I explained in a separate blog post, there isn't one single definition of "bilingualism". In everyday speech, we tend to think of a "bilingual" as someone who grew up speaking two languages (i.e. "simultaneous bilingualism"); however, many of us are "sequential bilinguals" who became proficient in our first language before acquiring a second language in later childhood or even adulthood.


Research has demonstrated that adults can become fluent in a new language with consistent practice and immersion. A study conducted by Jubin Abutalebi and his team in 2007 showed that adults can achieve high levels of proficiency in a second language through practice and experience, leading to changes in brain function and structure associated with language processing.


What's more, the various cognitive benefits associated with bilingualism – such as improved memory, attention, problem-solving skills, executive function and protection against diseases such as Alzheimer's – are not exclusive to individuals who became bilingual from infancy.


In 2018, a team of researchers led by Jason W. Gullifer investigated the impact of bilingualism on resting-state brain connectivity in adults. Their findings indicate that bilingual adults, regardless of the age of second language acquisition, exhibit differences in brain connectivity patterns associated with cognitive control and attentional processes compared to monolingual adults.


In the context of raising bilingual children, this means that parents should not worry that their child is too old to start learning a new language.


The best time to start (if you haven't started already) is always NOW!


Myth 4: "Bilingualism Causes Identity Confusion"


Some people believe that being bilingual can cause "identity confusion", especially for children who grow up navigating multiple cultural and linguistic identities.


However, in reality, the opposite is often true!


In my book Bilingual and Trilingual Parenting 101, I cite the example of Howie Dorough (aka "Howie D") of Backstreet Boys fame.




The singer was born to an Irish-American father and a Puerto Rican mother but did not grow up speaking Spanish. He talks about how this affected his ability to feel connected to the Hispanic side of his heritage, and how learning to speak Spanish later in life helped him overcome some of these identity issues.


In a blog post I previously wrote about the memoir written by an American-Korean author, I cited how the author Helena Rho described the "grief" of not knowing her parents' language: her parents thought that raising her to speak English only would help her assimilate into American society, inadvertently depriving the author of the ability to connect to her Korean heritage. Like Howie D, she learned to speak Korean later in life (actually, she did speak Korean as a young child but gradually lost it), which gave her a new-found sense of confidence in her cultural identity.


Numerous academic studies support this. To give one example, researchers J. H. Zhang and P. Goodson examined predictors of bicultural identity integration in Chinese American college students. The study found that bilingual individuals who are proficient in both their heritage language and English often demonstrate higher levels of bicultural identity integration, suggesting that language proficiency contributes to cultural identity development.


Myth 5: Bilingualism Can Harm a Child's Academic Performance


My father-in-law, whose youngest child was born in Australia in the early 2000s, was told by his son's school that he should stop speaking to him in Russian at home as this would adversely affect his son's academic performance. (Thankfully, my father-in-law did not follow their advice; his youngest child went on to become bilingual and an academic high achiever!)


However, the belief that raising a child to be bilingual could slow down their academic progress is still, to an extent, prevalent.



Parents are understandably concerned about the potential impact bilingualism may have on their child's academic performance, but research suggests that bilingualism may in fact be correlated with improved school performance
Parents are understandably concerned about the potential impact bilingualism may have on their child's academic performance, but research suggests that bilingualism may in fact be correlated with improved school performance

I'd like to reassure parents that this concern, while valid, is not supported by research in this field, which consistently shows that bilingualism offers cognitive benefits that can actually enhance academic success.






 

I hope this blog post has helped debunk some of the most prevalent misconceptions and myths about bilingualism, especially in the context of raising young children with two languages, thus helping parents make more informed decisions.


Thank you for reading! Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section!

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