Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Myths about Early Childhood Bilingualism

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Myths about Early Childhood Bilingualism

Article excerpt

Competence in two, or more, languages has taken on increased value in recent years in many communities and countries around the world. There are local, national, and global reasons for this. Locally, there are communities where knowing more than one language is an advantage because knowing more than one language facilitates interpersonal communication, enhances job prospects, and enriches one's day-to-day life; this is true in cities such as Montreal, Geneva, New Delhi, among others. Similarly, there are advantages to bilingualism in communities where an indigenous language is spoken, and members of the community want to maintain and revitalise competence in the indigenous language while also learning an important majority language. For example, the Mohawk community near Montreal has developed immersion programs that promote the acquisition of Mohawk among young Mohawk children while ensuring that they also know English and/or French (Jacobs & Cross, 2001). Bi- and even multilingualism are often advantageous for national reasons as well. In countries with policies of official bi- or multilingualism, such as Canada, Switzerland, and South Africa, there are personal, educational, and economic benefits to knowing both or all official languages. The European Union's "1 ^ 2" policy encourages member states to promote acquisition of the national language along with another European language and a third language so that European citizens can travel and work freely anywhere in the European Union and, also, be competitive globally.

There are yet other advantages to learning more than one language. Research has shown that bilingual individuals enjoy certain neurocognitive advantages in comparison with monolinguals. A bilingual advantage has been demonstrated in the performance of tasks that call for selective attention (e.g., Bialystok, 2001), including tasks that require focusing, inhibiting, and switching attention during problem solving, for example. It has been argued that learning and using two languages calls for selective attention to minimise interference between languages and ensure their appropriate use; this, in turn, enhances the development of executive control processes in general, not only in linguistic domains. These advantages have been found in both childhood and adulthood (Bialystok, Craik, Klein, & Viswanathan, 2004) and are most evident in bilinguals with relatively advanced levels of proficiency in two languages and who use their two languages actively on a regular basis (Bialystok, Peets, & Moreno, 2014).

Notwithstanding the evident professional, personal, social, and cognitive advantages of bi- and multilingualism, parents, educators, policymakers, and health care professionals often express serious concerns about raising or educating children bilingually. These fears are often founded on four myths: (1) the myth of the monolingual brain; (2) the myth that younger is better; (3) the myth of time-on-task; and (4) the myth of bilingualism and children with developmental disorders and academic challenges. These myths have serious theoretical significance as well as practical implications for raising and educating children bilingually. Thus, it is important that their validity be examined scientifically. Each of these myths is explicated, and research findings relevant to each are reviewed in this article. Evidence is drawn from research on three populations of young learners: preschool children who acquire two languages simultaneously (simultaneous bilinguals); majority language students attending second language immersion/ bilingual programs; and children who acquire a minority language at home but are educated in a majority language in school, such as Spanish-speaking children attending English language schools in the United States. Collectively, these diverse learners are referred to as "dual language learners."

The Myth of the Monolingual Brain

There are often concerns that learning two languages simultaneously from birth stretches the limits of infants' ability to acquire language and that they, therefore, will be confused and unable to differentiate between languages if their parents use both in the home; Paradis, Genesee, and Crago (2011) refer to this as the "limited capacity theory" of bilingual acquisition. …

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