Census data shows Canadians are becoming more linguistically diverse. The number of Canadians who speak a language other than English or French at home is up 14.5%. If this upward trend continues, this means our country will see a natural rise in the number of bilingual children.
Research has consistently proven the benefits of bilingualism. Knowing two or more languages has powerful effects on the brain. For example, there is a certain cognitive organization that takes place when people switch back and forth between languages. Studies also show those who are bilingual can multitask better than monolinguals and have better attention spans too.
If bilingualism gives adults a profound advantage, it’s only obvious the benefits this skill would have on children. Despite the overwhelming research proving otherwise, many misconceptions still exist about learning two languages. Let’s explore what is myth and fact when it comes to bilingual children.
1. Myth: Exposing children to multiple languages may cause delays in speech development.
Fact: According to BabyCenter, babies will begin to say one or two words around their first birthday. These first words will likely be a variation of ‘mama’ or ‘dada.’ These are the same developmental milestones as babies who learn two languages.
A bilingual toddler may speak a sentence in English, but mix in words from another language. Although it may be harder for others to understand the child’s meaning, this does not signal that he is delayed.
By age two, a toddler’s vocabulary may consist of about 50 words. Parents of bilingual children should include words from both languages when deciphering the total.
2. Myth: Speaking two languages may cultivate a speech disorder.
Fact: Bilingualism should never be blamed for a speech problem. This unvalidated fear should not discourage parents from exposing their children to multiple languages. Should such an issue exist, it will appear in both languages — not just one.
3. Myth: Learning two languages will confuse your child.
Fact: Bilingual children may mix up grammar rules, but this does not mean they are confused. They may also use words from multiple languages in the same sentence. This is simply a normal part of bilingual language development.
By age 4, a child will be able to understand the two languages are completely different — even though she may blend words together in the same sentence. Eventually, however, she will learn to separate the two languages correctly.
4. Myth: If a child is exposed to two languages, he cannot develop a strong identity.
Fact: Language is much more than a means of communication. It fosters culture, brings families together, and helps develop a sense of community. When a child speaks to his Chinese grandparents in Mandarin or orders ice cream in French while visiting his mother’s hometown in Quebec — these are special moments that should be celebrated, not discouraged.
A bilingual child’s identity will stem from his unique ability to absorb multiple languages. Being bilingual will be his identity, and there is no shame in that.
5. Myth: A child will never be fluent if she does not learn a second language when she is very young.
Fact: According to a study by Harvard University, children absorb languages best during the first three years of age. That’s because this is a period of rapid brain development, whereby the brain retains information deeply and easily. But despite these findings, older children and adults can still become fluent in another language at a later age.
6. Myth: Bilingual children often have academic problems once they begin school.
Fact: Despite this popular misconception, there are many academic advantages to being bilingual. Better problem-solving skills, multitasking ability and cognitive flexibility are all apparent in children who know two or more languages.
In Canada, enrolment in French immersion programs has increased steadily over the years. Kids thrive when they are in this type of academic setting — giving them a future advantage over monolingual children. Bilingualism is an asset on post-secondary applications and for career development. For parents who want to immerse their children in a second language, French immersion programs are an ideal start.
7. Myth: Children must be very smart to grow up bilingual.
Fact: Any child can be bilingual. No child is more ‘linguistically gifted’ than another — it all comes down to language immersion and consistency. All kids are born ready to learn multiple methods of communication. It simply comes down to whether you are ready to implement a change in your lifestyle that fosters bilingualism.
Whether you decide to put your child in a French immersion program or speak to him regularly in another language at home, young brains are wired to absorb a multitude of languages. Constant exposure and stimulation are all a child needs to become fluent.
8. Myth: Parents must be fluent in a language if they want their child to grow up speaking it.
Fact: If you and your spouse are both monolingual, you may wonder if it’s even possible to raise your child bilingual. Where will the child gain the exposure needed to develop a second language?
This is where parents must rely on outside sources to encourage fluency. Many immigrant families arrive in a new country with small children, not knowing more than a few words of the dominant language. But very quickly, their kids pick up the dominant language — even as the parents struggle to learn it.
This bilingualism is fostered through school, camp, and interaction with peers. These situations show it’s fully possible for a child to learn another language, even if the parents do not necessarily speak it.
As you can see, many of these common misconceptions are unfounded. If you would like your child to acquire a second language, take advantage of the resources and programs available in your area. In a country as diverse as Canada, there are many opportunities to immerse your child in an environment that’s rich with language.