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Book excerpt: Five myths about raising bilingual kids

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Students work together in teacher Daisy Moran's second-grade bilingual class during summer school at Mozart School in Chicago, Illinois.

The bloggers who brought us Spanglish Baby now have a new book out titled "Bilingual is Better."  Authors Ana L. Flores and Roxana A. Soto make their case well, offering advice and reassurance to parents who are trying to raise their children to speak more than one language.

It's a job that is more easily said than done, so the reassurance part is key. While research has shown that speaking a second language benefits the brain in numerous ways, and while the many bilingual colleagues I've worked with are living proof of how it can benefit one's career prospects, there remain some resistant and deep-set fears about bilingualism in childhood. The authors dig into these, drawing from their own experiences (they get into the science later). Here are the responses as penned by Flores:

1) Growing up with two or more languages will only confuse your child.

According to everything we’ve read, this misconception has been around for a long time and apparently it goes back to immigration issues in the United States. Educators used to tell immigrant parents that it was better for their children to speak English at home, erroneously stating that early exposure to two languages put children at a disadvantage. This is why there are so many third generation Chavez(es) or Rodriguez(es) in the west who do not speak a word of Spanish. Newer research, however, actually shows there are many advantages to being bilingual,which we’ll be exploring in detail later on.

From my personal observations, my daughter Camila never experienced any confusion at all. She has always known who to speak to in Spanish and who to speak to in English and will automatically make the switch.

We have a very good friend, Dariela Cruz, who is Venezuelan and married to a man from the United States. She only speaks Spanish to her two kids and her husband speaks to them in English. My daughter and her son have been friends ever since they were about two years old and have seen each other frequently. Of course, when Dariela and I get together for playdates, Spanish is the name of the game. As the kids grew, her son started refusing to speak in Spanish even to her and opted for English. However, we were always amazed that as soon as he saw Camila and me, he would speak to us en español because it seemed as though he thought I wouldn’t understand otherwise! He clearly was not confused, he was just going through a typical phase of rebellion against the minority language.

2) It takes longer for bilingual children to learn how to speak.

The author of Raising a Bilingual Child, Barbara Zurer Pearson, says this myth is not supported by any scientific evidence. In fact, “with respect to most developmental language milestones, bilinguals are either at the same level as or ahead of monolinguals.” Additionally, bilinguals have been found to have greater cognitive flexibility in word learning than monolinguals. Bilinguals were able to learn words with similar meanings more readily than monolinguals.

Both my daughter and Roxana’s two children were exposed to both languages in-utero, with a heavier influence of Spanish, and none of them experienced a delay in learning to speak. Camila, my girl, did have a problem with the clarity of her speech, but that would have happened if she only knew one language as well. Though some children may know more words in one language than in the other, it’s the total number of words acquired in both languages that matters when it comes to speech development milestones.

If you do suspect a delay in your budding bilingual’s speech, make sure you get him assessed by a speech therapist who speaks his language and who has experience dealing with children who know multiple languages. Be very wary of any doctor or teacher who tells you to stop speaking a second language to your child.

3) They will only end up mixing both languages and won’t know either well.

Mixing languages is inevitable and it’s harmless. But to many monolinguals, it’s proof that a child isn’t really able to tell his languages apart. The actual term for this behavior is “code-switching” and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. Code-switching is used for a number of reasons but does not necessarily indicate a language deficit. Sometimes bilinguals code-switch for emphasis or to express a term that has a slightly different meaning.

In some regions code-switching is the norm. It is important to consider a child’s language model. If children grow up in a code-switching region, they will likely code-switch. What is important to determine is whether or not they are able to use the languages separately after being sufficiently exposed to non code-switching models.

Personally, I code-switch and it’s not because I’m not completely fluent in both English and Spanish, but because sometimes a word sounds better in the language I’m not using. In fact, I have been quoted several times saying I’m most comfortable when I’m speaking with another Spanish/English bilinguals because my brain can relax and switch back and forth to whichever language works best for what I’m trying to say. This was definitely one of the bonding factors for my friendship with Roxana!

4) It’s too late.

It is never too late. It is only easier when children are younger. We always get asked if there’s a window of opportunity for the ideal age to raise bilingual kids. There are actually several windows, or critical periods, for language learning when our brain is most adaptive to absorbing new language(s), the broadest being from birth to seven years of age, even before we learn to talk.

The Bilingual Baby Project—a fascinating study we’ll be taking a closer look at later on—has concluded that the earlier we start exposing babies to a second language, the more flexible their bilingual brains will be and the more they will be able to identify and separate the sounds of the different languages they are exposed to.

However, with the right consistency and exposure, a child can adapt to a second language even after this first window of opportunity has closed. It would just be less organic and more of a process, but Roxana herself is proof que ¡sí se puede!

5) Children with language impairment should not learn more than one language at a time.

There is no evidence that being raised with two languages will confuse children with normal language development or children with language impairment. A recent study found that children with language impairment who came from bilingual backgrounds did not have more severe language problems than monolinguals with language impairment.

Now that we’ve debunked the old myths about raising bilinguals, let’s explore together the many amazing reasons why bilingual truly is better.

Flores and Soto themselves have lived bilingual, bicultural experiences: Flores is the U.S.-born, El Salvador-raised child of Salvadoran parents; Soto was born in Peru and lived in several countries before arriving in the United States as a teenager. Both have bilingual children.

Expect a forthcoming Q&A with the authors.

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