Expert Articles

Top 10 Myths About Bilingualism

Author: Karen KEI
Speech and Language Therapist

Bilingualism refers to an individual or groups of people who acquire communication skills in more than one language. They acquire these languages in various degrees of proficiency, in oral or written forms, in order to communicate and interact with others.

1. Bilingualism causes language delay

False. Bilingualism itself does not cause language delay. Bilingual children may say their first words slightly later than monolingual children, but it is still within the normal age range. Once bilingual children start to say short sentences, they develop grammar along the same patterns and timelines as monolingual children.

2. As parents, we should follow the ‘one parent one language’ policy

False. Some parents may choose to adopt the ‘one parent one language’ approach, where each parent only speaks one language to the child. While this is one way of raising bilingual children, it may not be the best strategy. There are a few factors that need to be considered, for example, (1) are they speaking their mother tongue?, (2) do they have enough bilingual proficiency to support that?, (3) will it interrupt or affect their relationship with the child?

3. An individual must learn a second language as early as possible to become bilingual

False. There is a ‘Critical Period’ theory that suggests that there is a window of time in early children during which a second language is most easily acquired. Although this might sound possible, research has shown that young children can achieve better ‘native-like’ pronunciation than older children or adults who learn a second language at a later stage. However, further research has found that older, school-age children have advantages when learning ‘academic’ English which is related to school curriculum, grammar and conversational skills which are essential at school. This is likely due to the fact that they learn their second language with more advanced cognitive skills than young children, hence, more experience and exposure to language and literacy.

4. Mixing languages is bad

False. When a child uses both languages within the same sentences of conversation, this is known as ‘cod mixing’ or ‘code switching’. Parents sometimes worry that code switching is a sign of language delay or confusion. As a matter of fact, it is a natural part of bilingualism and often seen as a sign of bilingual proficiency.

5. If you want your child to speak the majority language, you need to stop speaking your mother tongue with them

False. Some parents might try to speak the majority language to their children because they want their children to learn that language. It may be due to school preferences, immigration or being an ethnic minority. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that using a second language at home is essential for a child to learn a second language. Furthermore, any interactions and conversations would become very unnatural and uncomfortable between parent and the child, as well as to other family members.

6. Most people in the world only speak one language

False. Over half of the world’s population is bilingual. It is believed that the most spoken language in the world is English, followed by Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish and French.

7. Bilingual children will speak later than monolingual children

True. Bilingual children may say their first words slightly later than monolingual children, but it is still within the normal age range. The first stage of language acquisition is called ‘The silent period’. This is when the person is simply not talking yet but learning the new language through listening and observation. Children in this silent period should not be forced to speak before they are ready. They need time to listen to others talk, digest what they hear, and observe peer interactions with each other. This period varies from person to person, ranging between 2 to 6 months, though it might take longer, depending on the exposure of the new language.

8. Your child need to be fluent in one language before learning another language

False. There is no need to wait until your child is fluent with one language before introducing another. As long as they have enough exposure to the language they are learning, children can learn more than one language at the same time. Sometimes if they don’t have what they need in one language, they compensate by using the other.

9. Children will be confused if there are more than two languages in the household

False. Children learn from a very young age to tell the difference between languages. Mixing language is common for bi-or-trilingual children and they do not get confused by it.

10. Children with language delay should not learn more than one language.

False. Many children with language delay are raised in bilingual households and environments. Research has shown that bilingualism is possible for children with language delay. Speak to a speech and language therapist if you have any questions.

How to support your bilingual child?
  • Do what feels comfortable for you and your family. Don’t try to speak a language with your child if you are not comfortable or fluent In that language. 
  • Don’t worry if your child mixes his two languages. This is a normal part of becoming bilingual. Provide your child with many opportunities to hear, speak, play, and interact in your home language.
  • If you think your child has a language delay, consult a speech language pathologist for advice regarding the best ways to help your child learn more than one language.
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Top 10 Myths About Bilingualism