top of page

Five Things NOT to Say to Bilingual, Trilingual or Multilingual Families

Updated: Feb 1



 

Do you know someone who’s raising their kids to be bilingual, trilingual, or multilingual? 

 

Here are the top five comments that I think most parents raising their children to speak more than one language will encounter at some point on their journey. These comments reflect some of the most prevalent misconceptions about raising a bilingual/ trilingual/ multilingual child - and I’ll explain why I think they can be counter-productive!


Table of Contents


 

Comment 1: Doesn’t your child get confused?



Does bilingualism cause confusion?
Does bilingualism cause confusion?

 

This question perpetuates a common misconception about bilingualism. Research consistently shows that bilingualism has cognitive benefits and doesn’t lead to confusion. Check out my video and blog post about the cognitive benefits of bilingualism for more information.

 

Comment 2: Your child must be so clever!

 

You might be wondering – hmm, isn’t this meant to be a compliment? I’m sure that when people say things like, “Oh, your child must be so clever to be able to speak X number of languages”, they do mean well, but I think this comment is counter-productive for at least two reasons. 

 

Firstly, it conflates fluency in multiple languages with intelligence, neglecting the fact that on a global scale, more than half of the world’s population – between 60 and 75%, according to studies cited by the BBC – speak more than one language. Surely children in those countries are not, on average, smarter than children in monolingual countries? 



Being bilingual does not equate to intelligence or higher IQ or being a genius
Being bilingual does not mean you're a genius!

60-75% of the world's population speak more than one language according to the BBC
60-75% of the world's population speak more than one language according to the BBC

 

Secondly, comments like this can put undue pressure on parents.

 

On a more general level, maybe we should all focus less on intelligence. There’s plenty of research that shows that praising a child by emphasising the effort they’ve put into something rather than emphasising their intelligence (i.e. how “clever” they are) leads to better outcomes.


This ties in with the “growth mindset” theory put forward by the American psychologist Carol Dweck. The theory suggests that individuals who believe their abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work have a growth mindset. This perspective leads to a willingness to embrace challenges, persevere through setbacks, and ultimately achieve higher levels of success and resilience compared to those with a fixed mindset, who believe their abilities are innate and unchangeable.



Carol Dweck's theory of Growth Mindset and Fixed Mindset
Growth vs Fixed Mindset According to Carol Dweck's Theory

 

So, instead of saying, “Your child must be so clever!”, why not say something like, “Wow, it’s great that your child gets to practise using two/ three languages”. 

 

Because, trust me, being bilingual has nothing to do with being clever. Anyone can do it, provided there’s sufficient language exposure and the need to speak the language! In another video and blog post, I explain exactly what we do to raise our kids to be trilingual.

 

Comment 3: Your child has such a funny accent!

 

I’ve actually made a separate video and written a blog post dedicated to this particular topic, because I can guarantee, as a parent raising multilingual children, you will, at some point in your life, encounter comments about your child’s accent. As I mentioned in that video, I first got a comment about my children’s accent before I even had children; in fact, before I even got married! 

 

The thing is that most people do not mean to cause offence when they say things like, “Oh, your child has such a funny accent” or “your child has such a cute accent”. They probably simply find it amusing or even endearing. I don’t take these comments personally – not anymore, anyway! - but nevertheless, comments about accents can be unintentionally offensive or upsetting.

 

What’s even more damaging is that the child might overhear that comment, and trust me, children are very attuned to adults’ reactions to their behaviour. If they think that other adults are making fun of the way they speak a certain language, this can really put them off and make them reluctant to speak it!

 

So, next time you’re tempted to make a comment about your friend’s bilingual/ trilingual/ multilingual child’s funny accent… Well, if it’s a really close friend and you know for sure they won’t take it to heart, then, of course, go ahead! But if unsure, it’s best not to risk hurting your friend’s feelings or, worse, your friend’s child’s feelings.

 

Comment 4: Your child will only want to speak English once they start school – you just wait!

 



If you’re raising your child to be bilingual, trilingual or multilingual, chances are most people you meet will be supportive of your pursuit. But occasionally, some people can react negatively and even try to put you down. As I mentioned in a previous video and blog post about negative reactions parents might get from other people when raising a multilingual child, I once met a mum who told me with some bitterness that her child used to be bilingual too, until she started school. And she said, basically word-for-word: “Your child will only want to speak English once they start school - you just wait!”

 

Hmm. Not helpful. Not helpful at all.


And if you’re on the receiving end of such comments, please try not to take it personally and don’t let such attitudes affect you negatively. It is never an inevitable outcome that a child will lose their bilingual ability when they start school  - yes, it can become harder as the majority language becomes more dominant in their life, but as long as you remain consistent in using the target language and avoid slipping into bad habits, your child absolutely does not have to lose their bilingual ability! In my book, I offer lots of tips and advice for parents raising multilingual children in various situations, so do check it out!

 

Comment 5: Language X isn’t that useful, is it? What’s the point of putting in all this effort?

 


What makes a language useful? Is it worth raising a child in a not-so-useful language?
What makes a language "useful"?

For those of you who don’t know, my husband and I are raising our kids to be trilingual in Mandarin, Russian and English while living in the UK. While everyone I know thinks that learning Mandarin is awesome, a few people have said something like, "Uh, what’s the point of learning Russian? It’s not that useful, is it?" Perhaps they are not aware that there are 260 million native Russian speakers worldwide and an additional 120 million non-native speakers.



The Russian Language is widely spoken in the world, with 260 million native speakers and 12 million non-native speakers
Statistics on the Russian Language: 260 Million Native Speakers and 12 Million Non-Native Speakers

 

In any case, I think comments like this can be somewhat misguided. Because even if your target language is only spoken by a small population, the benefits of raising your child to speak that language can still be immense. As I mentioned already, bilingualism confers numerous cognitive benefits. 

 

Also, studies have shown that being fluent in a second language makes it easier to learn additional languages. In one fascinating study conducted at the University of Haifa, two groups of 6th-grade students in Israel were chosen to represent a sample of students studying English as a foreign language. The first group comprises Russian-speaking immigrants fluent in Hebrew, while the second group consists of native Hebrew speakers. The results showed that the Russian-speaking group exhibited higher proficiency not only in English but also in Hebrew – pretty surprising results, you might think!



A Study on the Effect of Bilingualism on Studying Additional Languages by the University of Haifa
A Study on the Effect of Bilingualism on Studying Additional Languages by the University of Haifa

A Study on the Effect of Bilingualism on Studying Additional Languages by the University of Haifa - Bilingual Students Perform Better Than Monolingual Students
A Study on the Effect of Bilingualism on Studying Additional Languages by the University of Haifa - Bilingual Students Perform Better Than Monolingual Students

 

After comparing the results of these tests, the researchers were able to conclude that those students whose mother tongue was Russian demonstrated higher proficiency not only in the new language (English) but also in Hebrew. As the professor who conducted this study explains: “This is because languages reinforce one another and provide tools to strengthen phonologic, morphologic and syntactic skills."


So, even if you think your language is of little practical or commercial value in the wider world, raising your child to be bilingual will equip them with the linguistic and cognitive skills to learn more “useful” languages in the future. 

 

And even if you ignore all these practical benefits, learning a language is never pointless. It is a life-enhancing and enriching experience in its own right.

 

Thank you for reading this post!


As always, please like, share, comment, and subscribe. Share in the comments below any cringy or funny comments that people have made to you or your child!

 

 


Comments


bottom of page