This blog post attempts to provide an overview of some of the myths and truths surrounding multilingual parenting and concludes with some practical tips for parents. In Flemish primary and secondary education, 15% and 10% of students respectively speak a language other than Dutch at home. Partly due to increasing migration, multilingualism is becoming more and more common, which is accompanied by many questions about its advantages and disadvantages. Multilingualism has many advantages in today’s society. It is often a strength in the labor market and is also very practical when you go abroad. Some parents consciously choose to raise their children multilingually. Yet, in most cases, multilingual parenting is not a choice, but arises from practical necessity when parents each have a different mother tongue.
4 myths debunked by scientific research
Multilingual children have a greater risk of language delay or language disorder
Learning different languages quickly confuses children, causing them to confuse the languages
Multilingual children are smarter than children who speak only one language
For children who experience difficulties with Dutch at school, it is important to only speak Dutch at home
1. Multilingual children have a greater risk of language delay or language disorder
There is a general idea that children who are raised multilingually have a greater risk of developing a language delay or disorder in the long term than monolingual children. It is indeed true that learning multiple languages takes longer than learning a single language. Yet research shows that at some point a child completely catches up, with important milestones in language development being reached at similar times as monolingual children.
2. Learning different languages quickly makes children confused, which manifests itself in mixing the languages
When children are taught several languages at the same time, they often use words from these languages interchangeably in the same sentence. This is also called code switching (e.g. “Mommy, where is my trottinette?”). This code switching often gives the first impression that the child is confused by the large number of words he/she is being taught. However, the opposite seems to be true: code switching is not an expression of problematic language acquisition, but rather requires a good command of both languages. Children often only use this code switching when they know that their conversation partner can understand both languages. It is therefore a sign of the child’s great language skills!
3. Multilingual children are generally smarter than children who speak only one language
As much as some parents hope that multilingual parenting has the benefit of making their children generally smarter than a monolingual child, this myth is unfortunately not entirely true. A slightly more realistic finding is that multilingual children have an advantage in specific domains. For example, multilingual children seem to have a better insight into how languages work (e.g. a word is rather abstract in nature, where “tafel” and “table” refer to the same object) and how to assess a communication situation (e.g. .my conversation partner understands different words than I do). Even when these children learn a new language, they seem to use these skills. Despite these specific advantages in terms of language insight, it is therefore incorrect to conclude that multilingual children are generally smarter.
4. If your child has difficulties with Dutch at school, it is important to only speak Dutch at home
When children experience problems with Dutch at school, parents are sometimes advised to only speak Dutch to their child at home. It is often believed that learning other languages is at the expense of Dutch. Nothing could be further from the truth. Speaking a language other than Dutch at home does not have any negative effect on Dutch language development. Children are sensitive to the attitudes and attitudes that teachers adopt towards their home language. It is therefore important that teachers realize that a positive attitude can be of great importance and can also contribute to the child’s self-esteem.
What language will I speak with my child?
The mother tongue of the parents often plays an important role in deciding whether or not a child will be raised multilingual. However, it is also possible that you, as a parent, are multilingual yourself and may want to share one of your languages with your child. But how can you estimate whether you have sufficient command of a language for this? It is important that as a parent you can speak the desired language fluently without having to think about it. If you have to search for the right words yourself when speaking to your child, this will hinder both communication and the child’s language development. The attached figure, a slide from a presentation given by Dr. Koen Van Gorp, contains some questions that can help assess your command of a language
Some practical tips
- Don’t force your child to speak a language they are not ready for. Give your child time to discover the languages at his/her pace. Children sometimes go through a silent period during language development, during which they mainly understand and learn a language in a passive way. Above all, encourage any form of communication (e.g. repeating certain words) so that the child has positive experiences when learning the different languages.
- Visual aids can certainly help when learning different languages. Reading books or showing pictures can certainly help. Watching television programs can also be an aid, but research shows that human interaction best stimulates language development.
- Speak the same language with all children within the family, so that no child feels left out.
It is important that it is clear to the children where/when which language is spoken and with whom. There are different strategies to organize multilingualism within a family. For example, parents can decide to consistently speak their mother tongue with the child (OPOL), but they can also agree that a certain language is spoken in the home context and another language is spoken outside the home (OSOL). Find the strategy that best suits your family.
Do you find this topic interesting and would you like to know more about it? Then the following articles or links might be useful.
- King, K., & Fogle, L. (2006). Raising bilingual children: Common parental concerns and current research. CALdigest Series, 2, 2-3. (http://ea.niusileadscape.org/docs/FINAL_PRODUCTS/LearningCarousel/RaiseBilingChild.pdf)
- De Houwer, A. (1999). Two or More Languages in Early Childhood: Some General Points and Practical Recommendations. ERIC Digest. (https://www.ericdigests.org/2000-2/two.htm)