Myths of bilingualism

Bilingualism, like many of those ideas that inspires love and hate at the same time, has grown a few myths around it. We have all met that 60s or 70s child, product of a multilingual, multiracial, multicultural family, who is however monolingual and absorbed with the life of the country of his birth. When asked about his roots and linguistics ability, this 60s-70s child responds that his parents wanted him to fit in, didn’t want him to get confused, wanted him to learn to speak… and lots of different reasons that for most of us, parents of bilingual children, seem like lame excuses. [Read more...]

Bilingualism increases mental agility says new research

A large amount of scientific data points to the benefits of growing up bilingual and fresh research from the University of Strathclyde, Scotland reinforces this view.

The study, published in the Journal of Bilingualism, found that bilingual children outperform monolingual children in problem-solving skills and creative thinking. Researchers examined primary school pupils who spoke English or Italian, half of whom also spoke Gaelic or Sardinian, and found that bilingual children were significantly more successful in tasks set for them.

A total of 121 children around the age of 9 in Scotland and Sardinia, 62 of them bilingual, were given tasks where they need to reproduce patterns of coloured blocks, repeat a series of numbers, to give definitions of words and resolve mentally a set of arithmetic problems. Tasks were all set in English or Italian.

New research suggest bilingualism benefits mental agility.

New research suggest bilingualism benefits mental agility.

Differences in performance between the groups were linked to the mental alertness required to switch between languages, which could develop skills useful in other types of thinking. The Gaelic-speaking children were even more successful than their Sardinian counterparts, which may have been due to the formal teaching of the language and literature. Sardinian is not widely taught in schools.

Dr Fraser Lauchlan, of Strathclyde’s School of Psychological Sciences & Health, led the research. He said: “Bilingualism is now largely seen as being beneficial to children but there remains a view that it can be confusing, and so potentially detrimental to them.

“Our study has found that it can have demonstrable benefits, not only in language but in arithmetic, problem solving and enabling children to think creatively. We also assessed the children’s vocabulary, not so much for their knowledge of words as their understanding of them. Again, there was a marked difference in the level of detail and richness in description from the bilingual pupils.

“We also found they had an aptitude for selective attention- the ability to identify and focus on information which is important, while filtering out what is not- which could come from the ‘code-switching’ of thinking in two different languages.”

Reclaiming preloved games and resources

“There is no need to reinvent the wheel! ” I will never forget this comment as uttered by one SENCO (Special Needs Coordinator) in a school I used to work at. This was said in reference to the amount of time teachers in schools in Britain these days waste making up resources for lessons rather than using used-and-tried materials out there. [Read more...]

Is ‘one parent, one language’ the gold standard for bilingual families?

One most popular, if not the most popular, ‘method’ for rasing bilingual children is ‘one parent, one language’ (OPOL). Generally speaking it’s important to be consistent with the language in which one speaks to a child, especially when children are just beginning to talk – ie. Mum speaks Spanish, Dad English.

It means the child learns to distinguish between the languages spoken at home, and out in the real world. It’s a method that, broadly, we’ve followed with our daughter. Even at age two and a half we clearly notice that she uses much more Spanish in Spnish environments, much more English in English ones.

Don't negate vocabluary

Reinforcing the ‘correctness’ of vocabluary in the other language can be beneficial.

Consistency is important to know where they are with their language. However, there are times when deviating from the rule if the other parent is at least partially skilled in both languages. Say for example, the child is asking/telling you ‘es una fresa?’ (it’s a strawberry) it’s probably better to answer, ‘Si, es una fresa. In English it’s a strawberry. Fresa en espanol. Strawberry in English’.

Doing this does not negate the original utterance (simply saying it’s a strawberry might leave the child thinking they were mistaken). It reinforces it.

There are other situations were a modest deviation from the one parent, one language rule can be helpful and not a hinderance. In some families parents may communicate in just one language all the time. In others they may effectively mix and match between to languages. It generally isn’t important to the child which language or languages parents are speaking to one another. There is certainly no reason to standardise a language when speaking in front of the children. In fact, it’s probably helpful if ‘family discussions’ can and do take part in either language at different times as this means one language is not relegated to second-class status.

Tower of Babel

Children are naturally skilled at differentiating between different languages. Many societies are naturally multilingual. Childrens’ brains don’t explode.

Sometimes of course a child just simply understands a concept better in the other language and for the sake of getting them to get the message the other parent may switch languages. This is not going to do much harm. Probably less harm than the children sticking their fingers in an electrical socket or running into a busy road!

What’s more important for the child’s language development is plenty of quality interaction with parent that speaks language one and the parent that speaks language two. That’s where it really makes a difference and where consistency helps, especially when out and about. The parents should continue speaking their own language to the child, otherwise one language risks being relegated to the ‘wierd home language’.

While you will read a lot of information about the terrible dangers of ‘language’ mixing, don’t sweat it. In some multilingual societies languages are mixed and blended and contorted into a huge cacophony and children still manage to cope just fine. The one parent one language rule is a good rule of thumb, a good foundation or starting point, but you’ll soon learn works for you in your own unqiue family setting. Good luck!

Top tips for happy bilingual kids

When I started on my bilingual family trip, I did some reading about bilingualism and bilingual family. One of the things that really surprised me at the time was how the many articles of information written by the “so called experts” and parents quoting those experts made free use of the term “bilingual”. Let’s be clear on something, a person like me who speaks only one native language and a second foreign language well is bilingual, a child who has being brought up with two mother tongues is bilingual, yes, of course, if we take the term “bilingual” as meaning “two languages”. However, it’s plainly obvious that their bilingualism is inherently different. I will use the term bilingual kids here to mean children who speak two mother tongues. [Read more...]

The active, communicative toddler: wa-was and doggies

Over the last few months our daughter has come along wonderfully, she is outgoing and communicative. I know that most of you, bilingual parents, will be fed up with hearing the same song “don’t worry, your child will be a late talker, because s/he is bilingual, but it’s normal.” Well, guess what, of all the bilingual families I’ve met in the last two years through my daughter’s playgroups and people I knew before, I’ve only really met two children who were “late talkers”. It is debatable if these children were late talkers because they were bilingual, or just because they would have been late talkers anyway. So far, it is difficult to know, as for a proper research you would need twins or maybe a time machine so you could analyse one kid as a monolingual speaker and then go back in time and make the same kid bilingual… It is such a complicated issue, because there are so many factors that would affect a child’s development, like development in pregnancy, diet, illnesses and environment among others. So, sometimes I am really surprised at the ability of people to affirm something so far fetched as “your kid will talk late because he´s bilingual” when they actually don’t really have a clue of what they’re talking about… it is like Chinese whispers, like those damned Chinese whispers apparently based on psychological research that caused that many kids born in the 70s and 80s lost out on their family heritage because well-meaning family and friends decided that learning two languages would be detrimental to their development. [Read more...]