Language Myths & False Beliefs That Hold Students Back

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.

Comprehensible Input and Family (a special Thanksgiving post)

Is It Harder to Learn a Language from a Relative?

It is Thanksgiving week here in the US and in honor of family I am taking a break from writing about Chinese and second language learning to write about Spanish! Over the years, I have had many students with Chinese-speaking family members, usually a spouse, parent or grandparent. Often we joke about how the student should just learn for free at home, but the chuckles we share are usually punctuated with the same refrain: “my parent/spouse/grandparent just can’t teach me or I can’t learn from him/her.” We joke that it should be as simple as being in the same household as someone who speaks another language, but it really is just a joke because language learning is much more complex than that.

A Struggle With Spanish

I have my own jokes too, about how I could learn Chinese while living in China but I can’t seem to learn Spanish living under the same roof as my Mexican husband. I never quite believed that my brain was uniquely incapable of learning Spanish, or that my ordinarily very competent husband could not teach basic Spanish. But as our lives chugged on, I learned a few phrases but never felt like I made any progress in speaking more Spanish at home. Then something happened, and by this I mean that my nephew Luka came to stay with us for the summer from Mexico. Towards the end of the visit, I noticed myself speaking and understanding more Spanish. Either Luka had brought the magical fairy dust from Mexico that helps people learn Spanish or something else afoot. Turns out, second language acquisition theory tells us exactly what was going on.

Getting Comprehensible Input in Spanish

When Luka was living with us, I got loads more comprehensible input in Spanish. When it is just me and my husband at home, we talk about the things that married people tend to talk about, city council elections, renovating the kitchen, problems at work (only my husband has those ;)). These topics are really difficult to tackle in Spanish for someone with only a novice level of the language. They are abstract, use specialized vocabulary, and need a great deal of nuance. In Spanish, they are very much beyond frustration level for me.

With Luka in our house, however, the Spanish input I received changed. Before, it was either the same two responses to “tienes hambre?” (are you hungry) or a phrase that was too far beyond my level for me to understand anything. My husband talked to Luka about what he wanted for breakfast, chores he needed to do, the movies we watched as a family. All of these topics were very concrete, repetitive. There are only so many things a boy will eat for lunch. All of these things were comprehensible for me. Additionally, with two people speaking Spanish in front of me, I got twice the amount of input in Spanish than I received before. Really it was more like ten times the amount of Spanish because before. In the past, I only heard more than basic responses when my husband was on the phone.

photo of me and my nephew
My nephew Luka and I at my wedding

In Language, More is More

It has been several months since Luka left and my Spanish is coming along. This is the cool thing about language, more creates more. This was the shot in the arm I needed, hearing everyday conversation between two people. With this, I was able to build more of the implicit structure of the language in my head. Because I can understand more, I can say more. Since I can say more, my husband responds more (in Spanish). The other day we had a…. lively debate… about who had more shoes, all in Spanish! It was not the scintillating discussion that great relationships are made of, but it was an improvement over ““tienes hambre?”

All About Language Mixing

Should you be worried about language mixing?

The short answer is no. Parents of child who are learning a second (or third! or fourth!) language should not be worried if they hear a sentence that mixes two languages. An example of this is “我要去 the zoo” or “my friend James va a la playa.” This phenomenon is called language mixing, or code-switching when adults do it. The two sentences above are examples of lexical mixing, which happens when a word or several words of one language are inserted into a sentence of another. This is probably the type of language mixing that comes into people’s heads when they think about the topic, but phonological mixing, morphological mixing, syntactic mixing and pragmatic mixing are other types of language mixing as well.

Language mixing can be useful

Often, parents and educators get really worried when they hear language mixing in young learners. They think that language mixing is a sign that a child is confused and has somehow mixed up two or more language systems in her head. There is not really any evidence to support this idea, however.

One reason to not get to worried about language mixing is that adults do it too. There are lots of examples of adult bilinguals mixing words from one language into a sentence in another. I’ve noticed that Chinese-English bilinguals often use the English word “nice” in Chinese speech, e.g. “她非常nice” (She is very nice.) Maybe there is something about the word “nice” that a Chinese equivalent just does not quite capture. Maybe using the word “nice” is a nod to the importance of niceness in American culture. Whatever the reason for it, when we adults mix Chinese and English in the sentence “她非常nice,” there is no doubt that we are not confusing the two languages.

Why do kids mix languages?

One explanation for language mixing in children is that they do it because they hear from adults! At least one study shows that the number of mixed utterances children used was correlated with the number of mixed utterances they heard from their mothers. Parents whose children are learning a second language should not be concerned if they hear language mixing from their kids. The children are most likely not confused about which language they use and their brains might even be making a sophisticated choice about which words to use.

For more information about how kids learn language, check out the FAQ section