Don’t let language myths prevent you (or your child) from learning a second language

As a language teacher, I hear so many reasons from people why learning Chinese or any other language is not an option for them or another person in their lives. People are free to make their own choices, but I want to talk about the myths and beliefs that incorrectly limit individuals and families from pursuing bilingualism. I’ve written before about incorrect folk beliefs about language that limit people’s horizons. Below, I am responding to statements I have heard many times over the years. In person, it is hard to respond in the moment, because I do not want to rub people the wrong way, and in my classes students (or their parents) are paying to learn Chinese, not to get a lecture about language myths. So I am writing about it here, hoping that folks will find this resource on their own.

My daughter was a premie, so I was told that bilingualism would delay her speech even more.

Children who are born prematurely sometimes have speech delays. Sometimes children with speech delays will need special attention, and sometimes they catch up on their own. Bilingualism, however, does not cause speech delays. This is a myth that has stuck around with the tenacity of a bad cold. This does not mean that a bilingual child uses each language the exact same way, nor does it mean bilingual children are exactly the same as monolingual children. There is evidence that bilingual children have smaller vocabularies* than comparable monolingual children, so it is not purely wine and roses for bilingual children. The reasons for this probably have more to do with the amount of exposure children get in each language, rather than any internal factors.

If parents of premie children want to devote time and resources to only one language, that is perfectly fine. Time and resources are a zero-sum game and parents often have to make difficult choices about what they provide to their children. Potential speech delays should not be a reason to avoid bilingualism, however. There is no evidence that there is a connection between the two.

I have dyslexia, so I can’t learn a second language.

Dyslexia (an unexpected difficulty in reading that may be connected to phonological processing) can make it harder for people to learn a second language. Dyslexia is also the most common learning disability. This does not mean that it is impossible for a dyslexic person to learn a second language. Salma Hayek is bilingual and dyslexic (as are many other people), and she learned her second language (English) as an adult. If someone who has dyslexia wants to learn a second language, I recommend finding a teacher who has knowledge of dyslexia and learning disabilities. It is not a given that all language teachers will have this type of training.

My mom speaks to my son in Chinese, and he only answers her in English. He can’t learn Chinese for some reason.

I hear a variation of this statement almost every time I start a new class. So many of my adult students, or parents of younger students, bring up some version of this story: “Relative(s) always speaks L2 to Child and Child only responds in L1/does not understand.” There seems to be an assumption out there that if a child hears a second language at home, he should immediately be bilingual. If not, there is something wrong. I cannot get inside each person’s head, but there are some principles here that people should think about before concluding that a child can’t learn a second language because he is still talking to grandma in English:

  1. Understanding more than you can say is a stage in language acquisition. If a child hears a question from grandma in Chinese and responds coherently in English, that means that he understands the question! Perhaps he does not get enough input in Chinese to move to speaking Chinese, but he has acquired enough language to understand and should get credit for that.
  2. Children are emotional beings too. Adults get embarrassed in L2 contexts all the time, but so do kids. There is a myth that children are less prone to embarrassment than adults. They can feel self-conscious about mistakes the way adults do. Adults tend to be generous with praise and encouragement with children in early childhood. But they pull back when the children reach middle childhood. Children should be encouraged in pursuing a second language, just as they are when developing the first. Getting annoyed with a child who is not immediately speaking the L2 is not helpful.
  3. Play the long game. Think of language learning like a savings bond. When I was a kid, one uncle in particular sent me a savings bond for every birthday and Christmas. You know what a savings bond is when you are a kid? Fake money. It looks sort of like money, it allegedly has similar properties to money, but you can’t use it as money! Writing thank you notes was torture: “Dear Uncle X, thanks for the tease.” Cut to a few decades later when those savings bonds have matured and I am very, very grateful to Uncle X. He had the foresight and resources for helping me fund my education and get out of a couple jams. Right now, it might not seem like a child is getting anything from talking to grandma in Chinese. Give it time. Maybe someday he will study in China.  Maybe he will watch a Chinese movie and it will change his life. Or maybe he will be an important diplomat, be patient.
The word "bilingual" written in Chinese characters
Bilingual in Chinese

*I’m getting this from the research of Ellen Bialystok

What language myths have you encountered? How did you respond? Share in the comments.

Leave a Reply