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Myths about Bilingualism and Language Impairments

From: Bilingualism in Young Children: Separating Fact from Fiction

Bilingualism causes language delay.

FALSE. While a bilingual child’s vocabulary in each individual language may be smaller than average, his total vocabulary (from both languages) will be at least the same size as a monolingual child (10, 15). Bilingual children may say their first words slightly later than monolingual children, but still within the normal age range (between 8-15 months) (11). And when bilingual children start to produce short sentences, they develop grammar along the same patterns and timelines as children learning one language (5). Bilingualism itself does not cause language delay (10).  A bilingual child who is demonstrating significant delays in language milestones could have a language disorder and should be seen by a speech language pathologist.

 When children mix their languages it means that they are confused and having trouble becoming bilingual

FALSE. When children use both languages within the same sentence or conversation, it is known as “code mixing” or “code switching”. Examples of English-French code-mixing: “big  bobo” (“bruise” or “cut”), or “je veux aller manger tomato” (“I want to go eat..”) (10). Parents sometimes worry that this mixing is a sign of language delay or confusion. However, code mixing is a natural part of bilingualism (17). Proficient adult bilinguals code mix when they converse with other bilinguals, and it should be expected that bilingual children will code-mix when speaking with other bilinguals (5).

Many researchers see code mixing as a sign of bilingual proficiency. For example, bilingual children adjust the amount of code-mixing they use to match that of a new conversational partner (someone they’ve never met before who also code mixes) (5).  It has also been suggested that children code-mix when they know a word in one language but not the other (13). Furthermore, sometimes code-mixing is used to emphasize something, express emotion, or to highlight what someone else said in the other language. For example, “Y luego él dijo STOP” (Spanish mixed with English: "And then he said STOP!") (10). Therefore, code-mixing is natural and should be expected in bilingual children.

If you want your child to speak the majority language, you should stop speaking your home language with your child.

FALSE. Some parents attempt to speak the majority language to their child because they want their child to learn that language, even if they themselves are not fluent in the majority language. This can mean that conversations and interactions do not feel natural or comfortable between parent and child. There is no evidence that frequent use of the second language in the home is essential for a child to learn a second language (10). Furthermore, without knowledge of a family’s home language, a child can become isolated from family members who only speak the home language. Research shows that children who have a strong foundation in their home language more easily learn a second language. Children are also at great risk of losing their home language if it is not supported continually at home.

How to Support your Bilingual ChildThere are many ways to support your child’s bilingualism:
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