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Myths and realities about bilingualism

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A number of myths surround bilingualism, such as that it causes language delays and cognitive impairments. Dr Mark Antoniou, Speech and Language Research Program Leader at the MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development at Western Sydney University, recently gave a speech at Sydney Science Festival, debunking these myths. He spoke to SBS Greek.

The following article is based on the original article written by Dr Mark Antoniou, published on the website "The Conversation". 

“Research shows that raising a child bilingually does not cause language learning difficulties. Any lag in language development is temporary, so parents shouldn’t worry”, says Dr Antoniou

But what are some of the myths perpetuated regarding bilingualism?

Raising your child bilingually can cause a delay in development

“Not true. In fact there are numerous advantages, such as improved executive functions (mental planning), metalinguistic awareness (ability to think about language as abstract units), mental flexibility (processing information adaptively) and creative thinking” say Dr Antoniou

“Bilingual children will generally meet developmental milestones within the normal range of language development, but may in some cases be towards the tail end” he adds.

Bilingualism at a later age: is it possible?

Bilingual children lag behind their peers and won’t catch up

“This is a contentious issue, as there is considerable variability within bilingual children. Some children will not show any lag at all”.

“It has been suggested that a temporary lag may stem from having to accommodate two language systems within the same brain, but these children will catch up within a few months (note that this is not the same as a language delay)”.

He notes, however, that more research is needed to understand the exact mechanisms that are responsible.

My child will confuse the two languages

“False. Although there is some controversy concerning when the languages become separated. It was long thought that the two languages are fused at first and begin to separate when the child is around five. Recent evidence suggests that the languages may separate a lot earlier than was previously thought”.

Dr Mark Antoniou, Research Program Leader, Speech & Language, MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development at Western Sydney University.

Finally, Dr Antoniou, shares five tips for parents who raise a child bilingually:

  1. Be encouraging and patient as you would with any infant, and be aware that a bilingual child faces a tougher task than one learning only a single language.
  2. It is very important that both languages serve a functional purpose. Language is, after all, a tool for communication. If the child does not need to use the other language, they will probably stop using it. So, it is important to consistently place the child in situations that necessitate the use of both languages. Doing so will develop robust speech categories in each language and ensure that they learn to process speech efficiently - which will aid both listening and talking.
  3. Many parents worry about the issue of balance, meaning whether a child knows both languages equally well. In the past, it was thought that in order to be truly bilingual you needed to have an equal command of both languages. I conducted a series of studies on very proficient bilinguals and observed time and again that even fluent bilinguals have a dominant language. So, there is little point stressing about a child not having a perfectly equal command of each language because the truth is almost no one does.
  4. Parents commonly become concerned when bilingual children mix their languages. Do not worry. This is a normal part of bilingual language development and not a sign of confusion. Even proficient bilinguals mix their languages mix their languages.
  5. If you are concerned about your child’s language development, you should have your child assessed by a doctor and, if necessary, a speech-language pathologist. Bilingual children may present with language delays, just like any other children. If your child has a language delay, early intervention may be required to help them learn their languages

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