Does multilingualism cause language delays and identity problems? The British Council's Nayr Ibrahim busts a few more myths about speakers of multiple languages.
Myth: Multilingualism causes language delay
Raising children bilingually is sometimes believed to cause language delay. This misconception is based on a separate underlying proficiency (SUP) hypothesis. This theory, now discredited, suggests that languages are stored in separate compartments or containers, which represent half the capacity of the monolingual brain. These ‘containers’ have limited storage space, and, as the brain cannot hold so much information, it ‘elbows out’ the other language. This has resulted in well-meaning professionals recommending that parents stop speaking one of their languages to their children in order to make space for the language of the school or community. Usually, the one that goes is the language of the home, the child’s mother tongue.
Decades of research into bi- and multilingualism has shown that there is no causal relationship between bilingualism and language delay. Language delay has other causes, which are not linked to the fact that a child speaks more than one language. What these studies have shown is that bilingual children reach the same language milestones at the same time as monolingual children. As for bilingual children with language-related problems, such as dyslexia, they are not proportionally more numerous than monolingual children with the same challenges. Ultimately, raising children bilingually neither increases nor reduces the chance of language delay. So, let’s hold on to those mother tongues!
Myth: Multilinguals should develop literacy in one language first
When children are surrounded by multiple languages, they will inevitably have access to multiple literacies. However, schools do not reflect our multilingual, multicultural society where languages, cultures and literacies co-exist. At school, children learn through one language, which is usually the language of the host country. Even though foreign languages may be present, they are seen as school subjects, and relegated to a particular time slot. In some countries, children start primary school in a language they do not understand. In both cases, the children’s mother tongues are excluded from their education. Yet these are the languages children use for expression and understanding – the languages that open doors to the thinkers, writers and historians of their heritage cultures, and that children identify with.
The reality is that children can learn to read and write in multiple languages. The question is whether they develop biliteracy sequentially or simultaneously. Both are possible. The success of immersion bilingual education programmes, for example in Canada, is evidence that literacy in a first language is not essential for acquiring literacy in a second language. In these programmes, English-speaking children learn to read in French – their second language – without any adverse effects to their first language.
Furthermore, once children have gained literacy skills in one language, literacy in the other language comes quite easily. As soon as children have understood the concept of reading and writing, they transfer skills across languages. Even when scripts are different, and despite the added challenge, children are capable of comparing and differentiating between literacy practices. Giving children the opportunity to learn to read and write in their various languages is a priceless gift.
Myth: Multilingualism causes identity problems
Bi- or multilingualism was once seen to cause emotional instability, split personalities and even schizophrenia. This view of multilinguals justified severe practices such as punishing children for using their mother tongues in the school playgrounds or asking for clarification from a fellow student. As a result, many children were forced to make the traumatic choice of hiding their mother tongue and letting go of a part of their identity. This decision may have helped them integrate and assimilate into an alien culture, but one that arguably failed to recognise or acknowledge the full, complex and fascinating person behind the narrow mirror image of itself.
This attitude also reflects an inaccurate view of identity. Language and identity are inextricably bound. Identity is embedded in the functions of language, and individuals manipulate language to choose, affirm and assert an identity. Identity is multiple, dynamic and shifting; it constantly evolves as individuals negotiate identity positions in their interactions with other people.
Language also encapsulates the cultural and historical experience of a group of people over centuries. Most importantly, language reflects an individual's internal mental and emotional state.
All of the above is negated when a child is forced to give up any of his or her languages. When using their mother tongues, whether in written or oral form, children are drawing on an emotional and historical base that will allow them to express who they are, where they come from and where they are going. All children have a right to these past, present and future states embedded in language. Article 30 of The Convention of the Rights of the Child states: 'You have the right to practice your own culture, language and religion - or any you choose.'
Ultimately, when children are given the choice, they choose to keep all their languages, literacies and identities.
Nayr Ibrahim is Head of Young Learners and Bilingual at the British Council in Paris.
Find out about courses for bilingual children and teenagers at the British Council in France.
You can read this article in French.