There’s no handbook on how to raise bilingual kids. Getting your children to speak more than one language involves trial and error, and can be hard work. Bilingual parenting can also conjure up your own feelings of inadequacy when it comes to language.
In English-dominant countries like Australia, Canada, and the United States, raising children bilingually can pose extra challenges. It requires persistence and resourcefulness to maintain languages, especially if your mother language is not widely spoken. But having access to other languages is worth the effort because it’s beneficial for kids.
- Learning more than one language has many social and cognitive benefits for children.
- There’s strong evidence that maintaining a connection to language provides the best outcomes for children in the long term.
- It’s important to let go of the idea of needing to achieve perfect fluency, and it’s never too late to learn languages.
In our research for My Bilingual Family, a new podcast series from SBS, we met a number of bilingual families struggling with language in different ways.
Some families also had additional problems to navigate, such as disability and trauma. We asked experts to hear these stories and provide advice about the best ways forward.
Along the way, lots of myths and misbeliefs about language kept popping up. Here are five of the most common ones we heard.
Myth 1: Children are confused hearing more than one language
From the moment of birth, children’s brains are capable of differentiating between languages.
As sociolinguist Dr Loy Lising says in the first episode of My Bilingual Family, “Studies have actually shown that there is no set number of languages that the brain is programmed to learn”.
There is no limit in the child's brain as to the number of languages that they can learn, so long as there's rich and sufficient quality input.
Of course, there will be moments of confusion but that’s normal; kids being raised monolingually will also have similar moments of confusion when learning how to speak.
Making mistakes is an important part of language acquisition. It’s how we all learn.
Myth 2: Raising children bilingually delays their speech
A popular idea people have is bilingual kids are more likely to be ‘late talking’. There are plenty of anecdotes around which suggest this. But the evidence doesn’t actually support that this is the case.
As speech pathologist Anne Huang says, “I would always tell my clients to speak to their child in both of their languages, it’s not like they’re delayed. It’s just kids trying to figure out both language systems”.
What’s happening with kids being raised bilingually is that they’re acquiring vocabulary across two languages. This means they start off knowing fewer words in each language, which might look like a delay.
But to get a truer picture of what’s happening with your child, it’s important to take into account all the languages they’re understanding and speaking.
Over time, a bilingual child ends up with a much bigger set of words across multiple languages, compared to children being raised with only one language.
Myth 3: ‘One parent, one language’ is the only method that works for mixed-language families
‘One parent one language’ (OPOL) is often considered the best strategy where one parent speaks one language at home, and the other parent speaks another language. For example, one parent might only speak the minority language - for example, Korean - while the other only speaks the majority language - for example, English.
But this approach is not realistic for many families and can be difficult to sustain.
According to linguist Dr Anikó Hatoss, who we spoke to for episode two of My Bilingual Family, the success rate of children being raised using OPOL going on to actively speak their minority language is only around 75 per cent.
“The sharp differentiation between the two parents and the two languages is very hard to achieve,” says Dr Hatoss.
Especially in families where the other parent doesn't understand the minority language; it can lead to family conflicts or feeling of exclusion from family activities.
Alternatively, there are other approaches that can be adopted. One strategy that might feel more natural is parents deciding to vary their language use according to the context.
So, the family might take the approach that at home they speak one language with their children, but when they are at church, they speak English.
Myth 4: Starting school without English is a disadvantage
We spoke to many families who worried about their child’s English language abilities in coping with daycare and school.
This fear reflects a widespread belief in Australia that having a non-English speaking background is a disadvantage at school, which reflects the unfortunate reality that abilities in other languages are not valued here.
But rest assured that even if a child starts school without English, they will soon catch up.
Maggie Jankuloska migrated to Australia from Macedonia at the age of 10 and started school with no English at all. But as she writes in her article for SBS Voices, “My mind became a sponge, it had to. I soaked it all in – the lazy drawl, the abundant abbreviation… After a year in Australia I started receiving As in English”.
We spoke to Maggie in the first episode of My Bilingual Family, about how her struggle nowadays is passing on Macedonian to her son; English is the least of her worries. In fact, she has even written a new novel called ‘The Rat Catcher’s Apprentice’ which comes out in March.
Schools heavily promote English literacy in Australia and often have extra support for children where English is their second language. What schools don’t do well, in general, is support and teach languages other than English.
This is why it’s important to focus on creating a rich language environment at home and in the community, as much as possible. The evidence points to better outcomes for children all round if there is a concerted effort to maintain their first language.
As speech pathologist Dr Gayle Hemsley discusses in our third episode, when families support the development of their home language as well as English, “We get the best language learning outcomes, the best educational outcomes, the best social-emotional outcomes”.
“So, it’s really important for families to know that bilingual is the way to go,” Dr Hemsley adds.
Myth 5: Mixing languages leads to children not speaking any language well at all
There’s a real tendency to worry about keeping languages ‘pure’. But mixing languages is normal, though obviously the extent to which this occurs within families greatly varies.
This myth is also wrapped up in the idea that unless you know another language perfectly, it’s not worth learning at all. But knowing a language does not have to equal speaking like a ‘native’. Even having some competency in a language is worthwhile.
In any case, being fluent is difficult to achieve if a child is growing up far away from the source. But things that can help with fluency are the language environment at home, additional classes, as well as opportunities to use it with other speakers in the community. If possible, travelling overseas to the cultural homeland is also helpful.
According to Dr Hatoss, it is both acceptable and useful to mix languages. The most crucial factor is sensible language policy at home, as well as commitment.
“Parents who have a strong belief in their abilities are usually more successful,” Dr Hatoss says.
It’s important to remember that languages are a lifelong journey. There is no ‘never’ when it comes to learning.