A research synthesis based on decades of evidence from the fields of medicine, psychology, education and linguistics highlights common myths about children who grow up speaking more than one language. Drawing upon more than 100 studies, the qualitative review concludes that multilingualism is an advantage to be nurtured and maintained rather than a risk factor to be eradicated early in a child’s life. In November, the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed the report, which appears in the current issue of Social Policy Report, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Society for Research in Child Development. The report’s authors write that the Academy’s endorsement is not just an “honor” but “an important way to reach those caring for the health of children with this important message and the research behind it.” In fact, a key finding of the report is that the research contained within has failed to trickle down to practitioners who work with multilingual children. These practitioners include not just educators but pediatricians, who are an important and respected source of knowledge and advice for parents. The report is relatively brief (a dozen pages plus references and four commentaries). It is written in a style that is meant to be accessible to a busy practitioner who has the opportunity to counteract myths with evidence because she works directly with multilingual families. I asked the report’s lead author Allyssa McCabe, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who has studied language acquisition for nearly 40 years, to identify some of these myths and their corresponding, evidence-based realities.
Myth Number 1: Learning or speaking more than one language will confuse a child.
Reality: Children raised and educated in a “high quality language environment” where both languages are “valued and used in an ongoing way” will experience “cognitive, social, and potentially economic benefits.” Children exposed to more than one language have greater tissue density in the areas of the brain related to “language, memory, and attention.” The effect is particularly strong when the additional language is introduced before age 5. When babies hear multiple languages from infancy, their development in both languages is similar to the development of monolingual children. Multilingual children also have greater executive control (which helps with planning, memorization, dealing with new or novel situations, and resisting temptation) and better early literacy skills. Fluency in more than one language is associated with higher academic achievement and enhanced mental health. This is even the case when only one language is not necessarily supported at home: By the age of ten, children in dual language immersion schools can perform on par with monolingual speakers of both languages.
Myth Number 2: Parents of English learners should speak to their babies and children in English all the time even if they, themselves, do not speak feel comfortable interacting in English.
Reality: Like children who grow up speaking a single language, multilingual children do best when they “hear substantial amounts of responsive, positive, diverse, complex talk about objects and past events of interest to them.” This is what is meant by a “high-quality language environment.” When people do not feel comfortable speaking a language, they struggle so much with basic communication that it is difficult, if not impossible, to provide an enriching language experience for children. An enriching experience provided in a language other than English will help a child much more with language development than exposure to limited, simple, and superficial English.
What is the source of these myths?
McCabe believes they may derive from early twentieth century studies, long since discounted, that used IQ tests, administered in English, to erroneously conclude that non-English speaking immigrants were less intelligent. Another source, she says, may be a plain old fear of foreigners. To this day, just 20 percent of Americans are multilingual, as compared to two thirds of the world as a whole.
“Multilingualism,” said McCabe, “puts kids at a cognitive advantage. ... Ultimately, economically, we’re going to have to change as a nation to maintain our status, our competitive advantage. People all over Asia have learned English for years and years and years. We have made almost no effort to learn an Asian language. That, ultimately, is not going to continue to be acceptable. It’s ultimately not the case that we are always going to be the center of the world ... It’s an economic reality of the world becoming a more global place. ... We will have to appreciate the value that these multilingual children bring with them in order to maintain our business advantage.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.