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By: - at June 19, 2013

Myths and Realities on Bilingualism

Indian Girl learning more languages

The Background
Years of language research revealed that there may be as many children who grow up being bilinguals. Despite this reality, there have been constant criticisms and skepticisms on how bilingualism can actually put speakers into an advantage. Being poorly understood, it has continued to be unpopular among countries having one single language considered dominant. With the lack of familiarity and in depth understanding, bilingualism is considered by many as a hindrance rather than an edge in learning. Parents, teachers, educators, and specialists viewed bilingualism as a negative consequence.

In the past few decades, studies on the acquisition of two languages at once revealed that its process is complex. Unlike language acquisition for monolinguals, bilinguals have a rich source of language exposure not just from their parents but from the members of the extended family, playmates, classmates, and even care takers. Exposure to these sources also varies greatly and may cause language ability in any of the two languages to fluctuate over time.

The Myth
Bilingualism has been considered a sign of deficiency. Issues on whether it actually adds or subtract to students’ development continue to arise. Studies done some years ago returned with bleak outcomes and understanding. In the early 1950s, a research done by Thompson concluded that bilingual children become language handicaps. This is rooted on the fact that learning one language alone is difficult enough and learning two at a time is even harder. This is what inspired many schools to discourage bilingual instructions.

With research stating what has been considered true about bilingualism, children have suffered enough being misunderstood or considered deficient. This however, finally came into its end as developments in educational research revealed that former conclusion made on bilingual studies were actually false. In a 1983 research conducted by Garcia on Mexican-American bilinguals, it was revealed that bilinguals who live in nurturing and supportive environments do not develop a language handicap as previously claimed. Instead, both monolinguals and bilinguals display the same level of development on measurements of vocabulary, phonology, or syntax. It was then concluded that bilingualism does not seem to interfere with the development of either language.

The Code Switching
Asian Mother and Daughter TalkingOften considered negative, bilinguals often do language or code mixing. There are times when bilinguals are observed to be using two languages as one. In the past, this has been considered as evidence of language confusion and a very good point of attack for supporters of monolingualism. For many, mixing words from two languages when expressing something is a clear manifestation of bilingualism’s drawbacks. This, however, was proven otherwise as 1988 research done by August and Garcia revealed that this period in bilingualism is equal to that of plural noun confusions among monolinguals, and thus, a normal language development stage.

Code switching can only be bad when sentence structures seem not to fit. In America alone, millions of children use two languages – English and the one which their families speak. Instead of considering it a liability, it has been used as a method for preserving heritage and identity. With this, code switching is often utilized especially when what was meant to be said does not have an exact equivalent in the language originally used. Duality of the language used, therefore, does not hamper language development but rather keep the bilinguals’ language discrimination active.

Bilingualism: Myths Against Realities
With so many issues being thrown at bilingualism, here are the most popular issues and their corresponding research based findings:

1)  two kids listening to motherBilingualism causes confusion. Perhaps, this is the number one mistake people have as far as their understanding of bilingualism. For many, raising children or making an older child learn two languages will make way for confusions as they will find it hard to differentiate both language structures. This is also the very reason many immigrant parents chose to drop their linguistic heritage to focus more on developing English proficiency for academic success. According to Barbara Zurer Pearson, author of the book “Raising a Bilingual Child”, even days old infants can identify language differences especially if they are distinctly different from each other- like Arabic and French. For languages that are quite similar, it will take about half a year to be able to discriminate one from another. At some stage of development, bilinguals may use sounds and words from any of the languages and mix them in one sentence. This might be because borrowing is the only way to express what was meant. In many cases, this can happen as adults with whom the children interact with use both languages the same way. One reason for this is the fact that code mixing among adult or immigrant bilinguals is common. Despite this, it is noticed that most proficient bilinguals actually mix languages without violating the rules of syntax in both languages. For example, when there is no equivalent noun for a thought expressed in English, one may borrow a noun from Spanish or any other language spoken to fit the idea without violating the rules of grammar or syntax. Additionally, code mixing among young bilinguals often happens as a result of frequent exposure to the pattern of language used in the community.

2)  Bilingualism causes speech delays. In the past, parents were pushed to just use one language when talking to the child to avoid this problem, thus, making way for more monolinguals to exist. While some children raised in a bilingual environment may acquire language quite late than those of monolingual homes, it is not always the case. Language experts believe that bilingualism isn’t the culprit here. Stubbe Kester, president of Bilinguistics, says that some children develop language later than others and this does not mean to only happen among bilinguals, and those in dual language environments gain the same language rate as the monolinguals. Perhaps, many tend to believe in the myth that bilingualism may cause delays in language learning. It must be remembered, however, that children exposed to language environments exhibit different milestones. Individual differences exist in language acquisition as some would learn complex sentences ahead of others. It should be noted that people require different length of exposure to language before acquisition takes place. Bilingual or monolingual, language is acquired at different speed and level of exposure. In addition, language delay exists in both types of language users. Parents who wish to raise bilingual children should remember that correct language exposure is necessary to develop acquisition of two languages and that radical changes should be avoided so difficulties in dual language acquisition will be lessened.

3)  Bilingualism hinders language mastery. It is a common belief that people, especially children, when exposed to two languages will never develop mastery in either of the two; thus, they are not proficient in any one of their languages. Research, however, said that bilinguals can acquire language proficiency in the same way monolinguals acquire their language despite their lower level of exposure. With regular use and practice, bilinguals develop mastery in phonology and grammar of the languages they know. This is made possible by substantial amount of dual language exposure. Though there is obvious difficulty like vocabulary learning, bilinguals are observed to be doing just as the same rate with monolinguals in language development. This is due to the fact that vocabulary difficulty is only short term and thus can be overcome as exposures continue. In addition, unlike monolinguals who just concentrate on one language, bilinguals have to define the differences between two languages being learned. This makes them aware of the differences in structures and usage of both languages. Because bilinguals are almost always exposed to two languages- one at home and one in the community, it is not impossible to gain mastery. There is a great need for parents to provide rich language experiences in order to successfully raise bilingual children. Community support and exhibition for love of heritage can be additional factors. When parents model the way, it is easier for children to acquire both languages without much difficulty, so bilingual parents can be a good start point for raising bilingual children.

4)  Bilingualism can only be achieved if practiced from birth. Multi-Racial Parents with young sonSince language acquisition is often connected with mother tongue alone, many still believe that bilingualism can only be made to take place from the moment of birth. This, however, is not supported by linguists. While there is what we call the “critical period” in language acquisition, it is never too late to learn another language and become bilingual. Children between 5 to 10 years old are learning faster compared to those who are past 17. Spongy memory of the young learners makes it easier for language acquisition to take place. After teenage years, there is a need for greater and consistent effort to be able to learn another language, especially if it is quite distant in structure with the mother tongue. In addition, language acquired at puberty is stored in the different side of the brain, making translation from native language necessary before comprehension or expression of thoughts. It is true that communication in bilingual children is different, and social contexts must be mastered in order to successfully acquire the language. While adults learning to be bilingual will find it challenging to understand social situations where vocabulary or expressions are used, exposure is a very helpful factor. Because their level of understanding is more complex than children, it is advantageous in weighing in the differences of language use according to contexts. Given the correct training and frequent exposure, even older learners can acquire the social language skills necessary to express and understanding meanings in two languages.

5)  Bilingualism causes speakers to code mix due to lack of proficiency. When bilinguals mix language codes, they are often taken as a sign of language inefficiency. For many, it is interpreted as the failure to find the right words because one lacks the proper language capacity. In contrast, experts believe that mixing linguistic codes are actually harmless and quite unavoidable. For bilinguals, mixing terms from both languages to express meanings is a way to sort out languages. Additionally, most bilinguals have a dominant language, the one which is often used in most times of the day. When stating information or expressing one’s self, it is but natural that they borrow words from the dominant language to apply in the less dominant one. Experts agree that this phenomenon is temporary as the transition on the mastery of both languages takes place. Eventually, with enough exposure, this will be eliminated. For most bilinguals, however, code mixing is not about not knowing what to say in a certain language but rather, choosing the term that conveys the perfect meaning of what they want to say. Because this practice is common in adults, there is a no doubt child bilingual will follow the same. In addition, since language codes are embedded in the brain at the same rate, it is quite hard to keep languages completely separated. Luckily, with their ability to differentiate two different languages, it is even easier to use one specific language as monolinguals do.

Closing Thoughts
kid studying and thinkingResearch proved that bilingualism involves a complicated process that builds a foundation for both languages to be mastered. Different from how we normally view it, the acquisition of two different languages does not seem to ignite competition of mental process that leaves bilinguals at a disadvantage. In fact, the duality of speaking multiple languages helps cognitive developments. Bilingualism, preceded by code mixing, should not be considered a drawback. Generally, bilinguals develop proficiency in both languages based on their level of exposure. So, a bilingual who just returned from a vacation in an area where one of the languages is used primarily may prefer to communicate in that language for a while. This, however, is short term and the language preference can be diverted to that which is used in dominance.


 

 

 

 

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