Myths about Bilingualism
Further information about
all of these myths can be found in the books listed on the Books and Newsletters page.
Back to the main
- "Learning two languages confuses a child and lowers his
Old, poorly designed studies done primarily in the United States
claimed to show that bilinguals had lower intelligence than
monolinguals. Newer research has revealed several flaws in the
studies. The most obvious flaw is that the bilingual children were
recent immigrants, with poorer knowledge of English and more stressful
life situations than their monolingual counterparts. Newer studies
with more careful controls have shown that bilinguals are better at
some specific tasks, such as language games, but that otherwise the
differences between bilinguals and monolinguals are negligible.
- "A child should learn one language properly first; then you
can start teaching the other."
As in the myth above, this is an old belief based on flawed research.
Children who learn two languages in a loving, supportive environment
learn them both well. Children who learn two languages in a stressful
environment may have language development problems - but so will
children learning only one langauge in that same sort of environment.
- "A child who learns two languages won't feel at home in
either of them. She'll always feel caught between two
Relatives, friends and strangers will often caution about the
"identity problems" children may develop if their parents insist on
maintaining a bilingual home. The children, they believe, will grow
up without strongly identifying with either of the languages and,
therefore, the groups that speak them. Adults who have themselves
grown up bilingual, however, generally report when asked that they
never had problems knowing what groups they were a part of. Some even
find this concern to be rather bizarre.
Children who feel accepted by both their cultures will identify with
both. Unfortunately it happens that two cultures have such unfriendly
relations that a child who should belong to both is instead shunned by
both. This is not however a specifically bilingual issue.
- "Bilinguals have to translate from their weaker to their
The overwhelming majority of bilinguals can think in either of their
two languages. They do not, as some monolinguals assume, think in one
language only and immediately translate into the other language when
- "Children who grow up bilingual will make great translators
when they grow up."
By no means all bilinguals are good at translating. Nor have any
studies shown that growing up bilingual gives one an advantage or a
disadvantage over those who became bilingual as adults when it comes
to translating. There are many other skills involved, and bilinguals,
just like monolinguals, are too different to allow for easy
There is one important exception here, however. The sign language
interpreters you may have seen on television or at public events are
most often hearing children of Deaf parents, who grew up bilingual.
- "Real bilinguals never mix their languages. Those who do are
Bilinguals sometimes "mix" their languages, leading monolinguals to
wonder if they are really able to tell them apart. Usually, the
problem is not genuine confusion - that is, inability to tell the
languages apart. Far more common problems are interference, when
words or grammar from the one language "leak" into the other language
without the speaker being aware of it - analogous to a slip of the
tongue - or "code-switching", when the speaker more or less
intentionally switches languages for effect - analogous to mixing
jargon or slang in with standard speech.
Many, if not most, bilingual children will use both languages at once
during the early stages of their language development.
Semi-lingualism is a far more serious, and relatively rare, situation
that occurs when a child in a stressful environment is trying to learn
two or more languages with very little input in any of them.
- "Bilinguals have split personalities."
Some bilinguals do report feeling that they have a different
"personality" for each language. However, this may be because they
are acting according to different cultural norms when speaking each of
their languages. When speaking English, they assume the cultural role
expected of them in English-speaking society. This is different than
the cultural role expected of them in German-speaking society, which
they assume when speaking German. The change in language cues a
change in cultural expectations.
- "Bilingualism is a charming exception, but monolingualism is
of course the rule."
No accurate survey of the number of bilinguals in the world has ever
been taken; for fairly obvious practical reasons, it is likely none
ever will be. But it is very reasonable to guess that over half the
world's population is bilingual. Most of those who will read this
live in countries where monolingualism is the rule, but are seeing a
very unrepresentative sample of the world. See the section on
"National versus Personal Bilingualism" on the Politics of
- "Be very careful; if you don't follow the rules exactly, your
children will never manage to learn both languages!"
Some people maintain that "the only way" to raise bilingual children
is to follow one specific pattern, usually by speaking both languages
in the home. Practical experience, on the other hand, has shown that
children learn both languages regardless of the pattern of exposure,
as long as that pattern is reasonably consistent (and perhaps even
that is not a requirement!). More information can be found on the Practical Help
- "You'll never manage to make him bilingual now. People really
can't learn a language after age X."
Language learning is easier the younger you are when you start, and
there are biological reasons why very few adults can learn to speak a
new language with a native accent. However, people can learn valuable
language skills at any age. Establishing a bilingual home when your
first child is born, if not before, is the easiest for all, but it
can be done later if you for some reason must do so.
On to the Politics of