Contributed by Mark Antoniou, MARCS Institute, Western Sydney University
Does communicating with your child in more than one language cause language learning difficulties? According to expert in bilingualism Marc Antonio, parents shouldn't worry.
By the age of two, children are typically able to say a few hundred words. My son, Alexander, was able to understand almost everything in both languages – Greek and English – but he could say only six words.
Our concerns grew as we watched younger kids overtake his speaking ability. Like many parents, we questioned if we were doing something wrong (even experts can’t escape the fear and guilt that comes with being a parent).
A number of enduring myths surround bilingualism, such as that it causes language delays and cognitive impairments.
However, research shows that raising a child bilingually does not cause language learning difficulties. Any lag in language development is temporary, so parents shouldn’t worry!
Here are some more common myths debunked:
Raising your child bilingually can cause a delay in development
It has been suggested that a temporary lag may stem from having to accommodate two language systems within the same brain, but these children will catch up within a few months (note that this is not the same as a language delay).
But more research is needed to understand the exact mechanisms that are responsible.
My child will confuse the two languages
False. Although there is some controversy concerning when the languages become separated.
Many parents worry about the issue of balance, meaning whether a child knows both languages equally well. In the past, it was thought that in order to be truly bilingual you needed to have an equal command of both languages. I conducted a series of studies on very proficient bilinguals and observed time and again that even fluent bilinguals have a dominant language. So, there is little point stressing about a child not having a perfectly equal command of each language because the truth is almost no one does.
Parents commonly become concerned when bilingual children mix their languages. Do not worry. This is a normal part of bilingual language development and not a sign of confusion. Even proficient bilinguals mix their languages.
If you are concerned about your child’s language development, you should have your child assessed by a doctor and, if necessary, a speech-language pathologist. Bilingual children may present with language delays, just like any other children. If your child has a language delay, early intervention may be required to help them learn their languages.
Mark Antoniou is an ARC Research Fellow at the MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development, Western Sydney University