Dispelling myths about bilingualism

Bilingualism is a fluency of two languages. SISD is one of the few bilingual schools in the UAE, offering English/French, English/German, and English with French or German as a second language. The majority of our students are bilingual.

In this blog, we’ll discuss and dispel six myths about bilingualism you may have heard.

Myth #1: Bilingualism delays speech or language development

A child’s pre-language development is the same across all languages they learn. From their first words at age one, to two-word phrases at age two, children can learn multiple languages and perhaps even mix words of different languages. Research in the last few decades has shown bilingualism does not delay language development in children. The total number of words a child learns in both languages should be comparable to the number used by a child the same age who only speaks one language.

It’s okay if your child mixes grammar rules when they speak two languages; this is a normal part of bilingual language development. At around age four, children begin to separate the different languages but might still blend or mix both languages in the same sentence. Eventually, they’ll learn to separate each language correctly, especially if they’re learning and speaking in a bilingual school.

Myth #2: Bilingual children are rare.

More than half the world’s population speaks two or more languages and bilingualism is common among all age groups, at all levels of society, and everywhere in the world. In countries where most people only speak one language, the percentage of bilinguals is still high.

SISD is committed to educating and raising global citizens, and a bilingual education supports this mission.

Myth #3: If a child has parents who speak different languages, each parent should speak a different language so they grow up bilingual.

While there are many ways of teaching bilingualism to children, the method matters less than the realisation that the child needs (and uses) two or more languages in their everyday life. The one-adult-one-language approach can break down if the bilingual child realises that a weaker language isn’t needed because caretakers or other family members are stronger in one language and speak this more often to one another.

Ideally, all family members should use both languages at home to increase the child’s exposure to it, or the child speaks one language at home and acquires a second language at school or other places outside the home.

Myth #4: If children don’t learn a second language when they’re young, they’ll never be fluent.

The ideal time for children to learn new languages is the first few years of their life when their brain is developing at its most rapid pace. However, people can still become fluent in a second language later in life.

People become bilingual when life requires the use of two or more languages: education, work, immigration, intermarriage, and contact with other linguistic groups. Many adults become bilingual because they move regions or countries and must learn a second language. Although they may speak with an accent, over time, they can become equally bilingual as children who learn languages in early years.

Myth #5: People must be perfectly fluent in both languages to be bilingual.

Bilingual people know their languages to the level that they need them. They can have a dominant language, which can change over time. Others may not know how to read or write in one of their languages, or only have passive knowledge of a language. A small minority has equal and perfect fluency in both languages.

In North America and the United Kingdom, it is not uncommon for a child’s dominant language to be English. Children may prefer to speak in English instead of the one spoken by their parents. Bilingual people are just as diverse as monolinguals. Regular practice of verbal communication, along with writing and reading a second language, will help children (and adults) retain their bilingualism in the long term.

Myth #6: It’s more difficult for children with speech or language processing disorders to learn a second language.

Speech or language problems will show up in any language a child learns, but they’re NOT caused by learning two languages. Children with a speech or language disorder may have more difficulty learning a second language, but research shows many do so.

As we’ve talked about here, there are no strict guidelines around how children become bilingual. Our bilingual education starts from Early Years (PreKG) and continues to Grade 12. Read more about the benefits of learning a second language, and for more information about our bilingual programmes, contact our Admissions team at admissions@sisd.ae.

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