In our monolingual society, one of the oldest human practices still in use, i.e. speaking multiple languages, is surrounded in misunderstanding. We forget that, on a global scale, it is UNUSUAL to be monolingual and, some would argue, not a state that the human brain was actually intended for. In working with bilingual and multilingual families, often a main part of the work to be done centres around dispelling consciously or subconsciously held beliefs about bilingualism which are quite simply false. Thankfully, scientific studies come to the rescue to provide us with the real facts. I began making a list of the most common myths surrounding raising bilingual and multilingual children (believe me, I hear ALL of them ALL the time) and I ended up with a blog post so long you could teach your child a whole other language in as long as it took you to read it! So, my flexible, creative, problem-solving, think-outside-the-box bilingual brain came up with a new way to get you the same cool info in digestible chunks. Welcome to the first post in your new series called “Say What?!”
Myth 1. More than one language confuses a child, they mix them, don’t know which is which and don’t speak either proficiently.
Reality: children have been learning and competently using multiple languages since the dawn of time, there is more than enough room in a child’s brain for two, five or ten languages, and not just gifted or talented children, all children. Scientific studies show us that babies can accurately identify different languages before they can talk and that multilingual babies babble using different sounds to parents using different languages. Not only do they not get confused, they are the single most sensitive and accurate phonetic detection agents in existence. Babies are born with the ability to reproduce every human sound in every human language, as they grow they only keep those sounds relevant to them. The number of languages they learn affects not the information they need to add, but the information they lose. Bilingual children do mix their languages, so do bilingual adults. This is normal, natural and a sophisticated and playful communication feature in the bilingual toolbox. Bilinguals don’t jump out of a magical box fully formed, they develop over time, they experiment and learn through trial and error. The end result is more than the sum of its parts. A Spanish and English bilingual also speaks Spanglish, a glorious invention all their own, shareable with other Spanish-English bilinguals but full of their own flavour and rich ground for play-on-words, jokes, cultural references and sparkling dinner conversation! I would never deprive any bilingual child of this secret world by insisting on two pure languages that don’t interact. A bilingual is NOT two monolinguals put together. Bilingual children are also able to identify at a very young age whether the person they are speaking to understands both their languages or only one, and then they meet you on your level.
What about you? Did you believe this one too? What are some of the things you believe about children speaking multiple languages? And do you know if your ideas are right or not? Jot them down in the comments below and I’ll let you know!
Watch this space for Myth #2 next week: Having more than one language affects the fluency of the primary language… (Say What?!)