Myths and the truth about teaching two languages to your children

Will my child start talking too late? Will vocabulary be limited? In most cases, no. Here's what you need to know:

 The first verbal communication may have developed from sounds that have some internal meaning. The word “hello” in different languages (photo credit: AYSEZGICMELI, SHUTTERSTOCK)
The first verbal communication may have developed from sounds that have some internal meaning. The word “hello” in different languages
(photo credit: AYSEZGICMELI, SHUTTERSTOCK)

Bilingualism, i.e. speaking two languages, is very common worldwide and in Israel in particular since people in almost every second home speak another language.

However, many parents don’t understand the subject in-depth, so they have many questions about language delay in kids who are spoken to in several languages and the confusion that this might cause them.

Let's start with the definition.

Over the years, different definitions of who is bilingual have been established, with the most accurate and comprehensive describing a situation in which a person functions and is required to use two languages in daily life, with different people and in various situations. In other words, a person who can communicate (understand and produce) in two languages.

And how does bilingualism affect language development and cognition in children? Speech therapist Meital Mansheri Naphtali seeks to shatter some myths associated with the issue of bilingualism, based on research:

 Hebrew language (Illustrative). (credit: Natalia Yakovleva/Unsplash) Hebrew language (Illustrative). (credit: Natalia Yakovleva/Unsplash)

Myth: Bilingual children start talking later

This is the most common myth, and is said in comparison to monolingual children whose speech develops linguistically faster.

In fact, the process of language acquisition in bilingual children is similar to that of monolingual ones and the rate of acquisition and transition between lip developmental stages are quite similar.

There are studies that show a slight gap in favor of monolingual infants in the task of recognizing sounds from the mother tongue, but this gap narrows very quickly, already at a child’s first birthday.

Myth: The vocabulary of bilingual children is smaller than that of monolinguals

When referring to bilinguals, the number of words in the first language and the number of words in the second language should be connected so that their vocabulary isn't really smaller.

The exposure time is divided between the two languages and therefore the amount of exposure to each language separately is less, compared to a person who speaks one language.

Myth: There are no benefits to exposing the child to a second language

Parents who want to preserve a second language, even if it’s not the majority language (Russian vs. Hebrew, for example) give them a gift.

Exposure to another language allows parents to challenge kids cognitively, and studies show that reading in the mother tongue can help develop reading abilities in the other language as well. Also, bilingualism has many benefits associated with mental flexibility, problem solving and creativity.

So, the conclusion is not to listen to common misconceptions.

It is recommended to speak to kids in another language, but with an important condition - that it’s your mother tongue and you’re confident in your verbal abilities (syntax, grammar, vocabulary) in order to give them a proper model of the language. If you think that there is a language delay, it’s most likely unrelated to exposure to both languages. In that case, consult a speech therapist, tell her about the two languages spoken at home, find out together which language is more dominant for the child and she’ll take all of these into account when assessing the child's verbal abilities.

This article was written in partnership with the JAMA parenting app.