Dispelling the Myth: Bilingualism Causes Confusion
So many of us have heard, "Its best to speak one language." "Won't your child get confused?" This statement/question is extremely far from the truth. We share specific study results that have proven this to be a myth. Next time someone tells you this - use these facts to help educate them.
Ellen Bialystok, a well-known researcher on bilingualism explained how bilingual children show advantages in metalinguistic awareness. In other words, the ability to understand and use grammar correctly. She asked 120 children ages five to nine to judge sentences as grammatically correct or incorrect. She found that monolingual children were more easily misled by the meaning of the sentence when they were incorrect, while bilingual children were able to decipher the meaning by omitting distracting information and were able to correct the phrases. The idea here is that bilingual children understand how languages work - they understand there are different rules for each language and can use this knowledge to process.
"Oh no my child is mixing the languages!" Mixing languages is a normal phase of bilingual language development. I repeat - Mixing languages is a normal phase of bilingual language development! This is known as code-switching. Sometimes this is due to vocabulary knowledge. They may know the word in one language before they can think of it in the language they are speaking. Usually when this happens, they may use a word from their second language and still follow grammatical rules. What can you do? Model the correct language or word to use. They will probably look at you, "Yeah, thats what I said." and the conversation will continue. Studies dating back to 1976 by Lindhom, have concluded that language mixing does not interfere with language acquisition since children can differentiate between two or more languages at an early age. Springer 2007 also concludes that code switching has nothing to do with language dominance or gramatical development of the two languages. He makes a connection between early code-switching and that of adults who choose to code switch. Personally, I know I code-switch and speak Spanglish with friends and in informal settings.
The Silent Period
Language learning is rarely a steady process. Some families experience the dreaded "silent period" when children limit their use of language. This period is usually tied to changes such as starting school, starting up a new extra-curricular activity, or being immersed into a second language. Common behaviors you may see from you child could be seeking adult input or intervention when trying to communicate in the target language used for the activity/setting, or making and re-making the same mistake (usually gramatical) for a long period of time. Being aware of any language changes or challenges requires parents to take action. Simply by increasing exposure and opportunities to use the target language with others may help your child gain confidence and use proper grammar. Start by modeling the correct use of language and having them repeat. Also, making language learning fun and playing games are always a win for children. For example, if a child is having a difficult time correctly using verb tense you can play a game trying to remember places you visited or plan to visit in the future. Patience, assistance, and encouragement will help your child to overcome these obstacles.
As we process this information, we must remember that cognitive advantages of bilingualism are found in people with high levels of proficiency in both languages. Therefore for your children to take full advantage of their abilities we, as parents, must continue to foster bilingualism in every way possible.