“It’s so wonderful you’re raising your son to speak English and Japanese!” Such delightful remarks are no longer surprising to my husband and me because we hear them so often. However, we also hear about local families giving up on raising their children to be bilingual because of common myths like “learning a second language delays English language development.”
Having been trained in second language acquisition, I know that such myths are not supported by the research, even though they often sound reasonable. But what is the truth about children growing up bilingually? Here are some findings from current research:
(1) Bilingualism brings many benefits
One obvious benefit is enabling children to communicate with wider populations. Being bilingual also brings many other benefits, including more creative thinking and better meta-linguistic knowledge, which actually helps kids do better on reading readiness tests.
Not only that, one study suggests that multilingual kids are less likely to have negative stereotypes, leading them to have more diverse friends.
And don’t forget better job opportunities as well – research shows that bilinguals average 5 percent to 20 percent more pay than their monolingual peers!
(2) Common myths are not supported by research
It’s natural to wonder if learning to speak multiple languages simultaneously will delay children’s ability to speak English. However, research suggests that this is not the case. “The brain does not store two languages separately, but they co-exist as a language section,” writes Collin Baker, a professor of education at the University of Wales. He compares the concept to an iceberg with a section above the surface and another below, but both are part of the whole.
It is also not true that young children will get confused if they hear more than one language. Amazingly, a study found that children as young as 2 whose parents have different mother tongues can differentiate which language to speak to which parent.
(3) Bilingual development can be encouraged
Research suggests that one of the best ways to encourage children to acquire two languages is to make it fun! Pushing too hard is counter-productive. Youngsters should have positive associations with both of their languages, especially with the minority language. Leverage what they like. My son loves dinosaurs, so I don’t hesitate when it comes to buying Japanese-language books and DVDs about dinosaurs.
It is also important not to correct their errors too much. Research shows that doing so does not help children learn, and getting corrected all the time is anything but fun!
Please don’t give up too easily, either. Your children’s target language will be imperfect at times, but that’s completely normal. Even when they are fluent in one language and somewhat functional in another, the benefits mentioned earlier are still present.
One last tip – when it comes to how well children speak, reading to them creates magic. Kids who are read to a lot will speak better, so read, read, read!
Our area has many resources for families. Eugene Public Library has books, CDs and DVDs in 17 languages and bilingual story time in Spanish/English. Springfield Public Library has books and events in Spanish as well. Eugene is also home to immersion schools where students receive up to 50 percent of their instruction in the target languages. You can read more about these schools at http://www.4j.lane.edu and on immersion programs at http://tinyurl.com/2dnrp83.
A great starting point for those interested in bilingualism are two books, The Bilingual Edge and A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism. The Center for Applied Linguistics (http://www.cal.org) also has easy-to-read articles, including “Raising Bilingual Children: Common Parental Concerns and Current Research.”
Ganbarimasho! (Japanese for “Let’s do our best!”)
Maiko Hata is an instructor and an academic advisor at the American English Institute at the University of Oregon. She has an MA in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, and gives workshops on bilingualism in the Eugene/Springfield area. Parenting Now! is a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening families through parent support and education. Explore this site; visit us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram; or call 541-484-5316. Family Info Line is also available; call 211, extension 5, or send an e-mail to email@example.com