Raising bilingual children: the pros, the cons, the myths

Do bilingual children have delayed language development? Is it better to become fluent in one language first? What does bilingualism actually mean? We speak to a linguist, and to parents raising their children bilingually…

Dr Antonella Sorace, Professor of Developmental Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, is an experimental linguist and founder of Bilingualism Matters, a centre for research into language learning. The centre also aims to resource parents, teachers, and others to make informed decisions about bilingualism. Here she busts some of the myths and shares the benefits, and some parents share their own experiences.

How would you define bilingualism?
Being bilingual means knowing more than one language, not necessarily perfectly and not necessarily to the same level. If you’re able to use more than one language on a regular basis, that makes you bilingual, even if you’re not bilingual from birth.

What are the myths surrounding raising children in two or more languages and what’s the truth?
Some people think speaking two languages to children makes them confused so they don’t learn either language properly and experience developmental delays. We know from research that this is not true. Even very young babies can distinguish between two languages long before they start speaking or producing words. There are some studies that suggest that if a newborn has been exposed to more than one language when they were still in the womb, those babies come to the world with a special sensitivity to those languages. That’s incredible, right?!

Parents worry about whether children can tell the difference between the two languages and sometimes delay a second language until the first is established and fluent. In fact, I’d say if there is an opportunity to have two languages from birth, it should really be grasped.

Where did those myths come from?
Early research into bilingualism, 50 or 60 years ago, was mostly done in communities that were socially and economically disadvantaged. That was the reason they weren’t doing well in tests, not their bilingualism.

In many parts of the world being multilingual is the norm. Here it’s the other way round, which is why bilingual children are considered special and even potentially at a disadvantage. Now there is more and more research on children in different social contexts, and in most cases bilingualism at the very least doesn’t put children at a disadvantage and in many cases it’s shown to give them very real advantages.

What are the benefits of bilingualism?
There are advantages of different types. One of the language advantages is that a bilingual child has a better understanding of how language works in general which means they find it easier to learn other languages.

There are advantages for the way children learn to pay attention. When you’re concentrating there are things you have to filter out to stop you from being distracted from your goal

There are advantages for literacy. When children begin discovering alphabetic scripts – that printed letters correspond to the sounds in the spoken language – bilingual children grasp this more easily because of their greater sensitivity to language.

It also helps children understand that other people can have a different view from their own. Children think they’re the centre of the world when they’re young and have to gradually understand that not everyone can read their mind or see what they see. They have to understand that other perspectives are possible. In many cases bilingual children get there earlier because they understand that not everyone speaks the same languages as them. They have to choose the right language depending on who they’re talking to; they have to step out of their bilingualism and realise that other people are not like them. Interestingly that is reflected outside of a language context; bilingual children develop an earlier appreciation that other people are not like them.

There are also advantages for the way children learn to pay attention. When you’re concentrating there are things you have to filter out to stop you from being distracted from your goal. It’s been found that bilingualism may affect this, as well as enhancing the ability to switch from one task to another. So all the languages are very much active in the brain, so when you choose to speak one you are actively excluding the other. This kind of focus happens in language, but its effects extend beyond the language domain into situations that aren’t linguistic.

In this country people don’t care much for other languages because English is still the language that opens doors and that has international status

Of course, these aren’t all automatic – your context and attitude can affect these things. researchers are trying to find out which contexts favour these benefits.

What hampers bilingualism?
If a child realises that people think one of their languages is ugly or that it ‘sounds like a disease’ or a speech impairment, that child isn’t going to want to learn or speak that language. It’s also very common that one language is used in the home and one outside the home, but often it’s the minority language spoken at home. The child can grow up with the idea that mummy or daddy’s language is less important that the one spoken outside – the language of education and media.

In this country people don’t care much for other languages because English is still the language that opens doors and that has international status. In Europe everyone cares about English precisely because of that, so children learn English at the expense of experiencing other languages.

We do a lot of work with refugees and migrant communities because there’s a perception that their children have a deficit. Clearly a child who lives in the UK has to learn English if they want to function well at school. But they can and typically much faster and better than their parents. Many parents are told to stop speaking their home language so the child hears more English. That’s very wrong – the parents are learning themselves so they’re not good models, and they also deprive their children of the opportunity to be bilingual with all the benefits of that. Children can learn very fast and we should see them as bringing resources not problems.

We’re researching the impact good or bad attitudes towards a language has on the effects and benefits of bilingualism, but in principle the hypothesis is that it doesn’t matter which language a child learns. It’s having more than one language in the brain that brings mental flexibility and adaptability, regardless of what languages they are.

Raising Bilingual Children…

Rachel Ball de Silvestri
“I speak English, my husband’s native language is Spanish and we both try to speak those languages exclusively. It’s tough as our daughter clearly favours English so it can be hard to push for the Spanish. Although I’m also fluent in Spanish, we tend to speak English at home and we live in an English-speaking environment in the Maldives so her learning is skewed to that. She knows daddy can speak English if he wants, so the urgency to speak Spanish with him isn’t really there. Once she’s a little older he will become selectively deaf to push the Spanish up a notch.

I have no qualms at all about raising a multilingual child but my mother did first! I think she was afraid that our daughter would never speak English properly, but she’s come round now. Our daughter was born in China and we lived there until she was 18 months old so I’m sure she still understands some Chinese or at least has some familiarity. She knows basic greetings and manners in Chinese, can count to 10 etc. I encourage her to speak Chinese with any Chinese people she encounters. She also watches cartoons in all three languages and will specify ‘Elmo in Chinese’, ‘Peppa in Spanish’.

I would recommend it to anyone. Just a little bit of extra language can really go a long way later in life. I’ve had to learn my second and third languages the hard way as an adult, so I’m really keen for my daughter to avoid that!”

Eleanor Summers
“I speak to Ines in English and my partner Florian speaks to her in French. As far as I can tell (which is hard to judge as she doesn’t speak too much yet) she understands us both equally. She says French words like ‘l’eau’ and English words like ‘bird’ and ‘fish’ and then mixed up words like ‘balluh’, for ball, balloon and ballon (French for balloon). I can’t say I have any anxiety about how we will teach her because I know so many bilingual and even trilingual kids where we live and everyone says the same thing – talk to children as normal and they will pick everything up and learn to separate the languages.”

Manny Garcia
“I was brought up in the UK in a bilingual environment (my dad’s Spanish and my mum’s English), and my parents spoke to each other in Spanish a lot of the time, but made a conscious decision to speak to my brother and I in English. The thinking then was along the lines that children having two spoken languages may confuse them or delay their language development and possibly leave them with an ‘accent’ when speaking English. But I became what is known as a ‘receptive bilingual’ where I understood almost all the Spanish spoken at home (though I didn’t let on to my parents for quite some time!) but could speak only a limited amount myself.

I chose to put myself into Spanish speaking situations and formally studied the language, so I consider myself bilingual now, but my mother tongue is definitely English.

I was keen for my children to have Spanish, and have it to the full. I’d seen bilingualism through meeting missionary families in Latin America where the language at home was one language and the rest of the time the kids were surrounded by Spanish. The result seemed to be perfection in both languages, with the most impressive example being of a Dutch family where one parent spoke Dutch to the children, the other English and being surrounded by Spanish, that all spoke all three languages! I did some research and found an excellent book called The Bilingual Family by Edith Harding-Esch and Philip Riley which was hugely helpful in helping me understand my own experiences, what the most recent studies are saying and how it might play out with my own children.

Our children are at a state primary with a bilingual English/French stream which has given them confidence in using their Spanish (rather than answering in English) at home, because they have to use French at school. They’ve found they’re among many in their classes that have more than one language, and they like that.

It keeps me on my toes. I keep having to refresh my vocabulary for the things I have never needed to talk about in Spanish, though there is no word in Spanish for porridge, so that will always be porridge! With English being my mother tongue, it can be a challenge when I’m tired – speaking Spanish is harder when sleep is at a premium, but I have a coffee addiction to help.”

Are you raising bilingual children? Or considering it? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below…