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Raising Bilingual Children

Myths and misconceptions about teaching your child a second language.

Key points

  • Raising your child to be bilingual has many benefits and is unlikely to delay language or development in any way.
  • If you would like to raise your child to be bilingual, research suggests that children learn best through play and social interaction.
  • The earlier you can start, the better, but it is never too late to begin learning a second language.

Many parents have a desire to raise their children to be bilingual or multilingual (that is, speaking more than one language fluently). It seems that everyone has an opinion on the “right” way to raise your child to become bilingual or multilingual. Yet, most of these opinions are not based on research, so it is hard to know where to start and which methods are actually effective in teaching a second language.

I am going to review the most common myths and misconceptions about bilingual language development and then tell you what the research actually says about these topics.

Myth 1: Raising your child with two languages will delay their language development.

Contrary to popular belief, research finds that bilingualism is not associated with a language delay. More specifically, research shows that bilingual children may know fewer words when measuring only one of their languages, but when all of the words they know in both languages are added up, they know as many words as children who speak only one language (“monolingual children”). In addition, even if only considering one language, bilingual children are typically within the normal range for language development. Research finds that bilingual children achieve important language milestones around the same time as monolingual children, including saying their first word, combining two words together, and having a vocabulary of 50 or more words.

Accordingly, if a bilingual child’s language development seems outside of the normal range, it should not be dismissed as being related to bilingualism, and the child should be evaluated for a speech or developmental delay.

Myth 2: Bilingual children may be delayed in other ways or may become confused when exposed to two languages.

There is also no evidence that bilingualism is linked to any developmental delays or confusion in young children. Rather, research suggests many potential benefits to raising your child in a bilingual environment, such as enhanced attention and executive functioning (a set of skills including working memory, self-regulation, and flexible thinking) and improved social skills. Bilingual children also show enhanced perspective-taking and are more sensitive to social cues like tone of voice.

Using two languages around young children will not confuse them. Babies as young as 4 months can tell the difference between languages without anyone explaining the difference.

Myth 3: You need to start in infancy, or it isn’t worth your effort.

There is a common misconception that you need to expose a baby to a second language as an infant, or they will never truly become proficient in the language. Yet, more recent research involving larger samples suggests that language learning proficiency extends a lot longer than you may think. The advantage that children have for learning a language seems to extend until around 17 to 18 years. However, this study did find that in order to reach the proficiency level of a native speaker, it is better for children to start learning a language before the age of 10. Yet, they found little difference between children who start learning a second language in infancy versus children who start at age 10. Regardless of your child’s age, it is never too later to start learning a second (or third… or fourth) language!

Myth 4: You must follow the “one-person-one-language” approach.

The “one-person-one-language” approach is a popular method used by parents attempting to raise a bilingual child in which one caretaker speaks to the child exclusively in one language while another caretaker speaks exclusively in another language (for example, the father speaks only English, and the mother speaks only Spanish to the child). Children can effectively learn two languages this way, but they can also learn two languages from the same person or when both parents speak both languages. As long as you try to provide a balanced exposure to all languages, your child can still become proficient in multiple languages.

Myth 5: You can use videos, television shows, apps, or toys to teach your child another language.

Television, videos, apps, or toys may not be the most effective way to teach your child another language since young children learn best from social interaction and in the context of a meaningful relationship.

One interesting study exposed 9-month-old, English-speaking American infants to Mandarin Chinese, either through in-person speaking or pre-recordings of the same speakers. Infants who just heard the speakers showed no learning, while the in-person speakers showed evidence of language learning.

However, research does find that adults seem to be capable of learning some language through television shows. Children aged 8 and older may also show some limited learning of language through a television program. Therefore, if your teenager or older child is allowed regular screen time, it may not hurt for this screen time to involve their second language. Just don’t rely solely on technology to teach a second language!

Myth 6: Your child has to hear the second language constantly in the home, or they won’t learn it.

Many parents believe that if your home is not bilingual, there is no point in trying. A recent study found that infants and toddlers showed significant gains in learning a second language when they spent one hour per day on it for 18 weeks in a preschool setting. In this study, the children learned best through play and social interaction and when their teachers used “parentese” (the type of speech that most parents naturally use with infants, which is slow and simple and involves exaggerated pitch and drawn-out vowels).

Of course, the more language you expose your child to, the more they will learn and the more efficient they will become in both languages. However, you do not need constant exposure or a bilingual home to raise a bilingual child.

Myth 7: If your child is diagnosed with a developmental delay, language delay, or autism, you should focus on one language.

Just as some monolingual children experience speech delays and/or developmental issues, bilingual children may also be delayed in language or meet the criteria for a language disorder, developmental delay, or autism. If the child is determined to be developmentally delayed or meets the criteria for a developmental disorder, it is not recommended that you focus on only one language. Research finds that bilingual language exposure is unlikely to cause any additional problems for children with language delays or other developmental concerns.

Overall translation

Raising your child to be bilingual has many benefits and is unlikely to delay language or development in any way. The earlier you can start, the better, but it is never too late to start learning a second language. If you would like to raise your child to be bilingual, research suggests that children learn best through play and social interaction.

Bilingualism does not cause language delays or disorders, or other types of developmental delays. If your child’s language seems delayed and you are raising them in a bilingual environment, you should have them evaluated rather than simply attributing the delay to being bilingual. If you suspect your child has a language disorder or other developmental delay, you do not need to stop bilingual exposure.

More from Cara Goodwin, Ph.D.
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