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Busting three myths about bilingualism: how to know and avoid them

In 2020, the creation of the Brazilian Bilingual Curriculum has crowned years of research and hard work to implement a thorough and well-established bilingual education syllabus to be adopted throughout the country. However, bilingualism is still surrounded by misunderstandings and false beliefs, which may hinder the cognitive benefits of such practice. Even among the otherwise educated and scientifically-minded, many people are ready to believe that handling more than one language at the same time is too much of a burden for a child’s brain. These people believe that the languages compete for resources in the brain at the expense of general cognitive development, when the reality is quite the opposite. In contrast, other people believe that children benefit from being brought up speaking more than one language. This dichotomy highlights the need for a thorough debate to shed some light on the advantages of raising children in a bilingual environment.

In the literature on bilingual language acquisition, the contrast between these false beliefs (characterized by language delay and language confusion) and the admiration often expressed by people at how easily children pick up more than one language has been termed the ‘bilingual paradox’ (Petitto & Kovelman 2003). The popularity and impact bilingualism has in the children’s cognitive development is a hot topic of discussion in academic papers, online wikis and articles about bilingualism, many of which are from writers from outside academia. However, if we look closely at some of these publications it becomes clear to us that many of these false beliefs are very resilient. Their persistent popularity might have to do, at least in part, with some informed decisions and claims made by non-specialists in bilingual acquisition; however, one should be careful when repeating them because these misinformed assumptions can end up affecting the children’s lives.

These assumptions, for example, can have a great impact on many parents who want their children to speak two languages. When researching the topic, they are likely to hear somewhere that exposure to two languages can cause problems in the acquisition of their child’s first language. This fact may either stop the parents’ attempt to raise their children bilingual before they even give it a try, or delay its introduction, since the parents may choose to introduce one of the languages only after the first language is ‘well established’.

Some parents who are supportive of bilingualism may even enrol their children in bilingual school programs where the target language is used to interact and to teach all the school subjects. Others, who come from a multicultural background, may successfully establish bilingualism in their children. Either way, at some point of their children’s life, they may encounter doctors, speech therapists, friends, family members, and teachers who are not used to bilingualism and who are often ready to blame bilingualism for any performance problems. In this situation, many parents may feel discouraged, which may urge them to abandon successful bilingualism and even make active efforts to re-establish monolingualism as a ‘cure to the problem’.

Given the sociological and linguistic repercussions of these linguistic myths, this article aims to bridge the gap between the scientific approach to the study of bilingual cognition and what many people believe about life with two languages by dissecting some particularly strong misconceptions that are still alive and well and affecting the daily lives of bilinguals around the globe. In what follows we will shed some on three myths that are regularly debated online and on conferences about cognition and bilingualism.

1.Myth one

Link between general intelligence and bilingualism

You must have already heard about the first myth: bilingual children are less intelligent than the monolingual ones, or, alternatively, bilingual children are more intelligent than the monolingual ones.

Based on the myth above, we should assume that the knowledge of more than one language either makes the bilingual speakers automatically smarter, or that it is rather a cognitive handicap during their first years. Which one do you think is correct? The answer is very simple, neither of them. There is no proved link between ‘general intelligence’ and bilingualism. Although early research in the 60’s suggested that bilinguals have a cognitive handicap, a decade later, subsequent studies showed that bilinguals are more intelligent than monolinguals. However, more recent studies argued that both conclusions have been found to be marred by failing to take important cultural and sociological effects into account (Grosjean 1982; Sorace 2006). These effects may have a great impact in how a child acquires their languages. Thus, it appears that bilingual children are neither more nor less intelligent than their monolingual peers. Yet, the experience of dealing with more than one language at a time does seem to give bilingual children some cognitive advantages in several domains, especially in tasks that involve cognitive flexibility and the control of attention (Bialystok 1991; 2011). Thus, bilinguals seem to be better at inhibiting irrelevant information, and at switching between alternative solutions to a problem.

This link between enhanced cognitive control and bilingualism has to do with the fact that bilinguals must develop a powerful mechanism for keeping the two languages separate, so that fluency in one language can be achieved without intrusions from their second language. Consequently, bilingual children have in their favour, the experience of having two languages available and of inhibiting one when the other is activated (Green 1998), which increases their ability to multitask in other cognitive domains. These cognitive advantages are maintained in old age and they may help to delay age-related brain pathologies such as the Alzheimer’s disease (Bialystok et al. 2004; van den Noort et al, 2019).

2. Myth two

Link between general cognitive development and bilingualism

Our second myth to bust is that the burden of handling two languages may slow down the bilingual children’s general cognitive development. This idea is based on the assumption that the brain is naturally predisposed to deal with only one language. However, research in neuroscience and psychology suggests that there are no foundations to the belief that monolingualism is the biological norm. While is it true that the onset of speech in bilinguals may occur later than average when compared to monolingual speakers, both monolingual and bilingual children go through the same major milestones in language development at almost the same time.

That is, both monolinguals and bilinguals go over the following stages:

  1. Babbling,
    at around 6-12 months.
  2. The emergence of single words,
    about the end of the first year.
  3. The “50-word stage”,
    at 14-18 months.
  4. The two-word utterance stage,
    at 18-24 months.
  5. The emergence of multi-word utterances,
    sometime around the end of second year.

If it was true that the brain was set up to acquire only one language, bilinguals would be at a disadvantage. This disadvantage would delay their language acquisition and development, which does not seem to happen (Sorace, 2006).

3. Myth three

The ‘critical period’ for language acquisition and bilingualism

Our final myth is: people can’t learn languages properly after the ‘critical period’ for language acquisition. Unlike the first two myths presented so far, this belief has some scientific basis, but it is still worth taking a closer look. The literature on bilingual acquisition has shown that simultaneous early exposure to more than one language seems to provide an effortlessly natural path to becoming bilingual, but would the same happen to older learners? Could an adult aspire to become fully bilingual even if they have learned their second language after a critical period? Can we say that there are aspects of language that simply cannot be acquired after a certain age?

If you have read about language acquisition, it’s very likely that you are familiar with the so-called “Critical Period theory”. According to Lenneberg (1967), the Critical Period consists of a special period (from zero until about the age of puberty) for the acquisition of language, such that humans are maximally predisposed to acquire language early in life. This theory supports the idea that complete success at acquiring language can be guaranteed
only by exposure during this early period.

This theory seems true enough for the acquisition of a first language: if children are not exposed to any linguistic input during the first few years of their life, their language abilities, especially their grammatical abilities, are irreversibly compromised. We know this from the few ‘natural experiments’ involving children who grew up in conditions of extreme deprivation and isolation.

When it comes to second language speakers, we know that the outcome of second language acquisition in adults is different from first language acquisition in children (and also from second language acquisition in children), but we do not have yet a definite answer to explain why this occurs. Are these differences a result from age-related changes in more general skills, such as memory, for example, or it is due only to a decline in specific linguistic skills? If we have been through the process of acquiring language once, why couldn’t second language acquisition be helped by “transferable skills” that are already in place?

We don’t have yet a definite response to exactly how good an adult can become at a second language. In other words, we don’t know yet what the actual limits of adult second language acquisition are. The most obvious difference between near-native speakers (that is, people who have achieved the highest level of competence ina second language) and early bilinguals is the fact that near-native retain a foreign accent. Thus, it seems that early exposure to a language may play some role in attuning the speakers to the phonetic details of the respective language. As for grammatical abilities, studies of near-natives consistently point to native-like knowledge of morphology and syntax; nevertheless, sometimes this knowledge may temporarily fail in real-time communication (Sorace 2006).

In any case, literature in bilingual acquisition shows that there is no reason to think that children cannot handle acquiring two languages simultaneously, and there are reasons to think that early bilingualism confers various cognitive advantages (Bialystok, 1991, 2011; Sorace, 2006; van den Noort et al., 2019, among others). Indeed, if one of the family languages is introduced after the first one is established, some aspects of it may not be acquired in a native-like way. This is particularly true for the phonetic and articulatory aspects of a ‘native accent’, which seem to be best acquired within a narrower window of opportunity. This also applies to some grammatical features as well, since children are extremely sensitive in the earliest period of their childhood to some grammatical features. One could agree that while children can and often do acquire second languages in later childhood, and often reach native-like mastery in these. However, better outcomes are guaranteed by simultaneous exposure.

So, if raising your child bilingual is a possibility for you, why not go for it?

References

Bialystok E, Craik FIM, Klein R, Viswanathan M (2004) Bilingualism, aging, and cognitive control:
Evidence from the Simon task. Psychology and Aging; 19:290–303
Bialystok, E (1991) Language Processing in Bilingual Children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bialystok, E. (2011). Reshaping the mind: The benefits of bilingualism. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65, 229–235.
Green, D. W (1998) Mental control of the bilingual lexico-semantic system. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 1: 67–81.
Grosjean, F. (1982) Life with two languages: An introduction to bilingualism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Lenneberg, E.H (1967) Biological Foundations of Language. New York: Riley.
Petitto, L. A. & Kovelman, I. (2003). The Bilingual Paradox: How signing-speaking bilingual children
help us to resolve it and teach us about the brain’s mechanisms underlying all language acquisition.
Learning Languages, Spring Vol.8, No.3, pages 5-18.
Van den Noort M, Vermeire K, Bosch P, et al. (2019) A Systematic Review on the Possible Relationship
Between Bilingualism, Cognitive Decline, and the Onset of Dementia. Behaviour Science;9(7):81.

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