bilingualism

Myths about bilingualism: what science says


17 August, 2022
17 August, 2022

What does it mean and what does it not mean to be bilingual? In an increasingly mobile world with countless opportunities, people are focusing on learning languages to communicate with others and to access new professional and educational experiences. 


Myths about bilingualism have become increasingly common and have led to a blurred perception of what bilingualism is and is not. Over time and with increasing human mobility, bilingualism has become an increasingly discussed topic. Because of this, because there are more and more opinions about bilingual abilities, it is difficult for us to define what it means to be a bilingual person, whether or not there is a critical period in which a person can become bilingual, whether or not people who speak one or more languages are more intelligent, and whether or not bilingualism causes confusion when it happens at an early age. 

It is important to point out that there is no universal 'recipe' that works for everyone and that each individual family needs to discuss and decide together on the best strategy for each individual member, especially children. 

If you're still wondering what's true and what's not when it comes to bilingualism, here's what myths about bilingualism research and studies debunk: 


1. Does bilingualism make people smarter?

Famous works in the literature, such as The Bilingual Edge by Kendall King and Alison Mackey, and articles such as Jeffrey Kluger's The Power of the Bilingual Brain, published in Time magazine, have highlighted the potential benefits of bilingualism. 

One of the most important benefits of early bilingualism is often taken for granted: bilingual children will know more languages, which gives them a real advantage in terms of future academic opportunities, making connections from different backgrounds, coming into contact with more cultures and, in the future, wider ranges of possible jobs.

Beyond the obvious linguistic benefits, researchers have investigated whether bilingualism confers other non-linguistic advantages. Several studies have suggested that bilinguals have certain advantages in terms of social understanding. Bilinguals have to navigate a complex social world in which different people have different language skills. For example, bilingual preschoolers seem to have better skills than monolinguals in understanding others' perspectives, thoughts, desires and intentions. 
Bilinguals also have some cognitive advantages. Bilinguals appear to perform better than monolinguals on tasks that involve switching between tasks and inhibiting previously learned responses. 

2. Are bilingual children confused?

One of the biggest concerns parents have about bilingual education for children is that it will cause confusion. One behaviour, which is often taken as evidence of confusion, is when bilingual children mix words from two languages in the same sentence. This is known as code mixing. In fact, code-shuffling is a normal part of bilingual development, and bilingual children actually have good reasons for code-shuffling. One reason why some children code-switch is that this happens frequently in their language communities - children do what they hear the adults around them do.

A second reason is that, like monolingual young people, bilingual young people are sometimes limited in their language resources. Similar to how a monolingual one-year-old might initially use the word "dog" to refer to any four-legged creature, bilingual children also initially use their limited vocabulary. If a bilingual child doesn't know or can't quickly find the right word in one language, they might borrow the word from the other language. Instead of being seen as a sign of confusion, code-switching can be seen as a path of least resistance: a sign of bilingual children's ingenuity. Moreover, bilingual children do not seem to use their two languages at random. Even 2-year-olds show a certain ability to modulate their language according to the language used by the conversation partner.

3. Should parents avoid mixing languages?

Many parents of bilingual children are themselves bilingual. Code-mixing - the use of elements from two different languages in the same sentence or conversation - is a normal part of being bilingual and interacting with other bilingual speakers.

Research on the impact of code-mixing on the development of bilingual children is still quite limited. A study of 18- and 24-month-olds found that although children are exposed to significant and constant mixing of elements of the two languages, they are able to cope with code mixing from an early age. It was also suggested that although code-mixing might initially hinder word learning, it is possible that practice in switching between languages may lead to later cognitive benefits.

4. Does early bilingualism bring more advantages?

Many people are familiar with the concept of the 'critical period' for becoming bilingual: the idea that people are only able to learn a new language until a certain age.

Researchers disagree about whether there is a critical period, and they disagree about when this critical period might occur - proposals range from 5 to 15 years. Although research is inconclusive about the best time to learn a foreign language, we do know that as we get older the brain's plasticity decreases, the speed of memory decreases and the time to maintain focus gets shorter. It is therefore likely that our brains are more receptive to learning a new language in the early years of life.

Bilinguals who learn two languages from birth are called simultaneous bilinguals, and those who learn their mother tongue for the first 6 years and then a second language, whether they are 10 or 40, are called sequential bilinguals. The evidence points to fairly strong advantages for simultaneous bilinguals over sequential bilinguals. They tend to have a better accent, a more diversified vocabulary, greater grammatical competence and greater ability to process language in real time.

5. Do bilinguals have an equal and perfect knowledge of both languages?

This is one of the most enduring myths about bilingualism. Research shows that performance in fluency, vocabulary, accent and grammar is influenced by the level of use of the respective language.
Bilinguals know and use their language systems at the level at which they need them. 

6. Are bilinguals also bicultural?

Not necessarily! While many bilinguals are also bicultural (interacting with two cultures and combining aspects of each in their daily lives), many others are monocultural (e.g. people from the German-speaking part of Switzerland, who often acquire three or four languages in their youth). Thus, a person can be bilingual (using both known languages on a daily basis) without being bicultural (not integrating elements of the culture of the foreign language learnt, retaining only cultural elements specific to the mother tongue) just as they can be monolingual and bicultural (e.g. Britons living in the USA).

7. Do bilinguals have dual or split personalities?

Although studies on this issue have not produced conclusive results, guidelines suggest that we tend to change our attitudes to some extent depending on the language we speak. We may be unconsciously influenced by all the information, stereotypes and prior experiences built up in relation to the cultural background of the languages we speak and thus change our behaviour when using a particular language system. However, changes in attitude and behaviour are not only generated by the language spoken, but also by the context in which we find ourselves, the action we take, the people we interact with. Therefore, these changes can also occur in monolinguals. 

As mentioned earlier, there are countless opinions on bilingualism and how the use of a second language influences the choices we make, our lifestyle, the way we think. For families who do not yet know all the necessary information about bilingualism to help them form their own opinion and strategy, the sheer volume of information, sometimes even contradictory, can be overwhelming. The 7 myths presented above are the most common myths about bilingualism, which researchers have debunked or substantiated, as the case may be, through research and evidence. 

Discover here a video on how to introduce a second language into your child's life.

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