Bilingualism: Myths

Oxford Brookes BabyLab

Common Bilingualism Myths

Many babies and children around the world are growing up in bilingual language environments. In fact, research has suggested that between one-third to two-thirds of the population are being raised bilingually. This means that at least 1 in 3 children are exposed to two or more languages on a regular basis.

At the Oxford Brookes BabyLab, parents often ask us about how to help their children learn two languages at the same time and about the common misconceptions and myths that they have been told. Here are three of the most common but enduring myths about bilingualism:

Are bilingual children confused?

Bilingual children will often demonstrate code-mixing which refers to mixing the sounds, grammar and words of their two languages. This can cause some people to become concerned that their child is confused by learning two languages; however, research shows that this is not the case. One reason that some bilingual children demonstrate code-mixing is because it happens frequently in their environment. Bilingual adults will often code-mix so children are simply just doing what they hear adults around them do. Another reason for code-mixing is limited linguistic resources. Just like young monolinguals, bilinguals are sometimes limited in their vocabulary. If a bilingual child does not know or cannot quickly retrieve a word in one language, they might borrow one from the other language. This suggests that code-mixing can actually be a useful method of communicating when vocabulary is limited!

Is it best for each person to speak only one language with a bilingual child?

There are several different approaches to raising children bilingually, such as, the One Parent, One Language (OPOL), minority language at home (ML@H) and time and place methods. Theorists originally promoted the OPOL method, as it was believed that associating each language with a different person was the only way to prevent bilingual children from “confusion and intellectual fatigue.” However, this early notion has been proven false, as there is no evidence of confusion caused by early bilingualism and children who hear both languages from the same bilingual parent often do successfully learn two languages. Despite the enduring nature of this myth, the OPOL approach is neither necessary nor sufficient for successful bilingual acquisition.

Instead, it is better to choose an approach or multiple approaches that work best for your family. Ultimately, research has found that it is both quality and quantity of exposure to each language determines bilingual language development. Therefore, bilingual parents need to ensure that their children have sufficient high-quality exposure to the languages that they want them to learn.

Are bilingual children more likely to have language difficulties, delays or disorders?

No, bilingual children are not more likely than monolingual children to have difficulties with language, to show delays in learning, or to be diagnosed with a language disorder.

Whilst bilingual children have been found to typically know fewer words in each of their languages compared to the number of words known by monolingual infants, this apparent difference disappears when you add the number of words known in each language together to create total vocabulary size. This suggests that bilingual infants have a similar vocabulary size for the total number of words as monolingual infants. Bilingual infants and children have also been found to be equally good at learning word-object associations and demonstrate similar conversational abilities to monolingual children.