A- A A+

Best in Class #5: Myths and Realities about Early Childhood Bilingualism

Categories: Best in Class

Our expert this month is visiting assistant professor in the School of Education and Human Development at Florida International University, Ryan Pontier, Ph.D. 

At a Glance

We live in a state with the third largest number of students in Kindergarten through 12th grade that use a language other than English at home. Based on population growth, this means that Florida boasts a significant number of children attending early learning programs that are in the process of learning two or more languages.

In order to take advantage of the myriad benefits of bi/multilingualism, teachers, parents, grandparents, and other caregivers should be able to distinguish between myths and truths about early childhood bilingualism to better support their overall language development.

Below is a list of popular myths, the truth behind those myths, an example of each myth as you might experience it, and a way for you to try busting the myth (labeled “Try it out”).

Teacher showing children how to make pasta.

Myth #1: Bilingual children are confused.

What it looks like:

As big sister looks at little sister sucking her thumb, she says, “She’s chuping her dedo!”

Truth: Bilingual children are creative.

They engage in language practices that use all of the language skills (sounds, order, word choice) they are learning. This is normal, creative, and intelligent.

Try it out:

Pay attention as you interact with your child (or when your child interacts with someone else). Can the child express herself? Does the other person understand the message? You will probably notice that your child is not confused and knows just what she wants and can tell you by using all of her languages.

Early education teacher reading with a student

Myth #2: Bilingual children are delayed in their speech.

What it looks like:

An emergent bilingual child uses sentences with 2-4 words at 2 years old. Most words are identified as Spanish, and a few are identified as English. When we only focus on English, it may seem that the child is not progressing according to the expected developmental milestones.

Truth: Bilingualism does not cause delays or disabilities.

Many therapists and medical professionals often suggest that, if there is a delay or disability, one of the languages be dropped. This is absolutely not the case. If a child truly does have a language delay or disability, it will manifest itself in both languages and the child would have had the delay/disability even if only one language were used. We must look at all of the language that emergent bilingual children are learning and using, not just what they use in one language.

Try it out:

Observe your child as they are speaking. You might even write it down. What languages do they use? What creative words, word order, or sounds are they using to communicate their message? Do you understand their message? When you look at all of the language they are using, are they at the “right” developmental stage/milestone for their age? Usually they are!

Mother holding and looking at her daughter

Myth #3: Bilingual children’s parents/caregivers should interact with them in English.

What it looks like:

The parent of an emergent bilingual student, who uses less English than his English speaking classmate, is told that she should read to her child only in English to help him learn English because English is the language that will be used in Kindergarten.

Truth: Parents should use the language(s) with which they are most comfortable and continue their daily activities, such as speaking, singing, reading, and writing with their children.

Often, English-only is thought to be the best way to learn English, but it is not. By only speaking to a child in English we are blocking opportunities for him to make connections with other languages or to share what he knows based on an experience that occurred in another language. We should instead support bilingual development, building on the emergent bilingual experiences, using both English and the home language. As such, what has already been learned in one language can be expressed and understood in another language.

Try it out:

Ask the teacher what they are working on in the early learning program. Then ask your child—in the language that is most comfortable to you—to tell you/show you. If he understands the language(s) at the early learning program, you will likely find that he can tell/show you all about it, even in another language. If not, ask the teacher for some key words/phrases that are used in English and then use them at home in another language.

Children sitting in a circle at elementary school.

Myth #4: Children absorb language naturally. They are little sponges. All you need to do to raise bilingual children is make sure they hear the languages enough.

What it looks like:

A childcare center says they are a dual language program because their children watch Sesame Street in English and Spanish every day, noting that the children soak up the language when they are so young. The teachers, however, are not bilingual and cannot interact with the children in both languages.

Truth: Although young children have great propensity for learning languages, they still need quality care and education.

Simply placing a child in front of a television, tablet, or phone will not alone lead to learning a language. Children must engage in meaningful interactions with peers and adults to develop their bilingualism.

Try it out:

Say something new to your child. Does your child readily repeat what you said? Does your child repeat everything you have said? Does your child sometimes come up with totally new words or phrases that you—and sometimes nobody—have never said? If children were sponges, they would soak up and then repeat everything they heard without creating any new words.

Child showing his father his school cubby

About the Author

Ryan Pontier Headshot

Dr. Ryan Pontier is Visiting Assistant Professor in the School of Education & Human Development at Florida International University. He previously served as faculty at Miami Dade College, after earning his Ph.D. in Language and Literacy Learning from the University of Miami. Dr. Pontier serves as an expert in bilingualism and bilingual education for the United Way of Miami Center for Excellence in Early Education, Immediate Past President of Miami-Dade TESOL and Bilingual Education Association, Second Vice President for Sunshine State Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), Co-Moderator of the Sunshine State TESOL advocacy group, Chair of the Early Childhood Bilingual Education Council for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Florida, and Co-Chair of the Government & Media Relations Committee for LULAC Florida. Dr. Pontier began his education career with Teach For America in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where he taught 3rd grade in Spanish at a dual language elementary school one mile from the Rio Grande River. He and his wife are raising two bilingual daughters.

This Best in Class blog shares simple-to-do best practices straight from early learning educators. We hope these tips are useful for educators and parents who want to use best teaching practices with their children.