Bilingual Education: 5 Language Immersion Myths

This post isn’t about translation, specifically.

However, it ties into the whole idea of language learning, something that is essential, obviously, for anyone interested pursuing translation as a career field or even as a hobby.

I put this article together as I hear from a family member who was considering putting her children in a bilingual elementary school.

I knew there was some controversy about the doing it, so I wanted to set the record straight, not just to help her, but to help anyone who would ever consider putting their child in a similar program.

So, after a lot of thought and discussion about bilingual education, you’ve finally decided to do it. You’ve decided to put your child in a language immersion program.

Now it’s time to tell the extended family. Instead of the expected reaction of support for your decision, you get bombarded with questions and advice from well-intentioned (albeit misinformed) individuals:

“Why would you want to do that? Everyone should learn English.”

“I heard that children who try to learn two languages develop slower than other kids.”

“They’re never going to be able to fully learn English now.”

Pretty soon, you wonder if you’ve done the right thing. Anxiety starts to creep in and doubts begin to surface. You’re not alone. Many parents at one time or another question their decision to put their child in a language immersion program. They begin to hear about so-called “research” that discredits immersion programs and questions your child’s ability to learn two languages.

Misconceptions abound (Wikipedia has a good reference section on bilingual education.

However, they can often be categorized as one of the following myths:

Myth #1: Children that grow up hearing two (or more) languages will experience language disorders and/or language delay.

This is probably the most widespread myth on the subject. It stems from the fact that research initially done in bilingual education for children was flawed. The majority of the studies were done on immigrant children with impoverished cognitive language abilities to begin with. Much of the research was skewed and attempted to prove that bilingual education had an adverse effect on other cognitive language functions, when in reality, social conditions were the primary factor in poor second language acquisition.

REALITY: Current research has shown that there is no scientific evidence suggesting children learning a second language will suffer from any disorders or delays in acquiring either their first or second language.

Myth #2: Children who learn a second language will never acquire the vocabulary needed to master either language.

This is a common argument by opponents of bilingual education which is a variation of the above misconception.

REALITY: Vocabulary acquisition is roughly equivalent for monolingual students and bilingual students. Monolingual students initially might have a slightly stronger vocabulary in the primary language than bilingual students, but when combining the vocabulary of the primary and secondary language of the bilingual student, the amount of vocabulary is nearly equal. In fact, some research suggests that bilingual students often surpass their monolingual counterparts within a few years in terms of the amount of vocabulary they know.

Myth #3: When children use two languages in a single sentence, it is a sign that they are confused.

REALITY: Code-switching (using two or more languages in a single utterance) is a common phenomenon among bilingual speakers. Contrary to popular opinion, it is highly regulated by the rules of grammar of both the primary and secondary languages. The most proficient bilingual speakers code-switch. When children (or adults) code-switch, it shows that they have assimilated the grammatical patterns of both languages and are able to differentiate between the two. I’d say that’s far from being confused.

Myth #4: Bilingualism is an exception; monolingualism is the norm.

REALITY: Some would have you believe that bilingualism and bilingual education is merely a fad. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Some reports suggest that nearly half of the world’s population is bilingual. Additionally, bilingual immersion programs are growing at an unprecedented rate as people have begun to realize the importance and the benefit of having their children learn another language.

Myth #5: Children learning two languages will be less creative than monolingual children and won’t be as good at math and science.

REALITY: Research has continually shown that bilingual immersion students do at least as well as, if not better than monolingual students in the areas of mathematics and science. Also, no scientific research supports the idea that bilingual students are less creative than monolingual students.

So what does all this mean? What it means is that your child is at no disadvantage for being enrolled in a language immersion program. Children have an amazing ability to adapt and learn when given the chance and a positive environment. Instead of focusing on outdated research and common misconceptions, parents should spend their time helping their child succeed.

The common thread of nearly all the research is that in order for immersion programs to be successful, parents must play an active role. The single biggest correlate to how well children do in an immersion program is the level of involvement by their parents. Without involvement, not only does the program suffer, but the children lose out on a tremendous opportunity to grow in ways that we, their parents, never dreamed of.

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