Myths about bilingualism

Some teachers see children who come from elsewhere as a problem. And I think: “Those teachers have not quite kept up with new developments!” But when parents get feedback like this from the class teacher they no longer know what to do. They will believe the teacher and try to speak English at home, so then you get broken English as the home language. So the children lose their heritage language but don’t get good English either. It’s very sad.

Dutch mother and ESOL teacher, living in Christchurch

Historically, throughout much of the world, deliberate attempts have been made to create monolingual societies by eliminating minority languages. It was commonly thought that speaking a single, majority language could bring many benefits to the citizens of a country such as by facilitating education on a national scale, for example, or creating unified systems for national administration. New Zealand followed a similar pattern of minority language suppression as many other countries worldwide when speaking Te Reo Māori in school was officially prohibited in the late 1800s.

It was also around this time that early research into bilingualism began to emerge, however, since international focus was on the benefits of monolingualism it is not surprising to note that research findings were consistently negative towards bilingualism (see the quote above, for example). Unfortunately, myths that speaking more than one language leads to linguistic confusion, impedes intellectual development, or negatively affects academic performance still persist today despite all of these claims having been repeatedly and comprehensively discredited since around the 1930s.

Every bilingual situation is different, and there are therefore many ways to be bilingual. People who speak more than one language tend to know each language only to the level that they need to use it, which means they may find one language more dominant or have a richer vocabulary in one language for discussing certain topics. This is normal and is not a sign of impeded intellectual development, in much the same way that the mixing of languages (also known as code-switching) is normal, and is not a sign of linguistic confusion. Furthermore, countless studies have shown that bilingualism often in fact has positive – rather than negative – effects on academic achievement.

Perhaps because it has been surrounded by such negativity in the past, bilingualism is something about which people tend to feel very strongly. Strong opinions about the perceived ‘value’ of certain languages over others are not uncommon either, and it may reassure a bilingual family to know that they are not alone if they regularly receive comments, opinions, and advice from strangers about the language(s) they use. Learning any language is enriching in many ways, however, and parents raising their children with one (or more) minority language(s) should feel assured that they are doing a good thing even if their journey is not always straightforward.

Helpful links on bilingual myths:

Multilingualism and development, disorders, and interventions:

Additional resources on bilingual myths:

Baker, C., & Hornberger, N. (2001). The influence of bilingualism on cognitive growth: A synthesis of research findings and explanatory hypotheses. In An introductory reader to the writings of Jim Cummins (pp. 26-55). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Cruz-Ferreira, M. (2010) Multilinguals are…? London/Colombo: Battlebridge Publications

Grosjean, F. (2010). Effects of bilingualism on children. In Bilingual: Life and reality (pp. 219-228)United States of America: Harvard University Press. 

Hakuta, K., & Diaz, R. (1985). The relationship between degree of bilingualism and cognitive ability: A critical discussion and some new longitudinal data. In K. Nelson (ed.), Children’s language (Vol. 5, pp. 319-344). Hillside, NJ: L. Erlbaum.

Pavlenko, A. (2014). The turn in the study of language and cognition. In The bilingual mind and what it tells us about language and thought (pp. 18-39). United States: Cambridge University Press.

Peal, E., & Lambert, W. (1962). The relation of bilingualism to intelligence. Psychological Monographs 76, 546.

Valdes, G., & Figueroa, R. (1994). Bilingualism and testing: A special case of bias. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

TEDx talk on the ‘monolingual mindset’ and how to better incorporate minority languages in teaching and learning. By Felicity Meakins, research fellow at the University of Queensland and field linguist specialising in Australian Indigenous languages.