The Benefits and Challenges Bilingual or Multilingual Children Face
9 November, 2020

The Benefits and Challenges Bilingual or Multilingual Children Face

Most of us that are not bilingual would consider it to be a huge benefit.

In fact, all the evidence shows that it is and particularly so in later life and career development. However, there are some issues that the parents of bilingual children should be aware of.

What is bilingual?

Generally speaking, a bilingual child is totally relaxed, perfectly fluent and equally comfortable in either one of two languages (commensurate with their age level). Some also use the yardstick of them being able to think in each language, rather than needing to translate in their head for understanding before speaking.

If they are like that in more than two languages, they’re usually referred to as “multilingual”.

Some younger bilingual children report not even being consciously aware that they’re reading or speaking in one language versus another. Either one is entirely natural to them.

How does it link to biculturalism

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This term describes children and adults who are very familiar with the legacies and values of two different cultures. An example might be a child who is equally ‘at home’ in say either an Australian or traditional Indian cultural setting.

Strictly speaking, a child does not need to be bilingual to be bicultural (some very different cultures share a common language). Similarly, being able to speak fluently in two languages doesn’t necessarily mean the child is equally comfortable in, aware of or has an affinity with, both of the languages’ cultural backgrounds.

There are many examples in history of people who have been bilingual but who have had a great deal of antipathy towards one of the languages’ associated cultures.

An important point to note therefore – biculturalism doesn’t automatically follow on from bilingualism. It needs to be worked at in the home, in play and in school.

The advantages

The advantages accruing from bilingualism are clear and well-supported by evidence.

Bilingual children tend to:

  • do better in school;
  • be able to think ‘out-of-the-box’ more in terms of finding solutions and identifying opportunities;
  • find it easier to understand and empathise with different views of life and cultural values;
  • be sought after in later career development;
  • learn subsequent languages more easily.

Some issues to be aware of

Serious issues associated with bilingualism are rare. Most challenges are minor and easily overcome with parental and school support.

Even so, parents should be aware of:

  • bilingual children may sometimes confuse words between the languages. They may also at times start speaking one language when they intended to use the other;
  • sometimes grammatical differences can spill-over in a similar fashion;
  • it is unusual in genuinely bilingual children but sometimes these differences can result in some more significant linguistic hybridisation and subsequent confusion. This is sometimes referred to as speaking “Chinglish” (Chinese/English), “Spanglish” (Spanish/English), “Franglais” (French/English) and so on. It is advisable that children are helped to maintain the appropriate linguistic demarcations to help with comprehension;
  • exclusion – some bilingual children can intentionally exclude others by speaking amongst themselves in a language other children around cannot understand. Although it might be a natural desire to express identity, it can also build barriers by forming exclusive groups and should be discouraged in most contexts;
  • by contrast, some children who speak one language at school and another at home can seek to integrate into the wider group by downplaying (sometimes even keeping secret) their other linguistic heritage. This too should be discouraged;
  • although more common in later academic studies, some challenges can arise due to the fact that not all concepts, terms and even words, are easily translatable between languages. This can be frustrating at times for some students;
  • languages might also have cultural value assumptions built into them. At times, these may conflict and cause bilingual children some difficulty in terms of rationalising the two conflicting value sets. An example here might be a child who is bilingual English / Japanese, with the latter language containing some structures that differentiate between male and female speakers, even though it is reducing today in the modern language.

Our commitment

We understand and respect the many different linguistic and cultural origins of the children in our care.

Our policy is to encourage children to be aware and proud of their heritage. We do everything in our power to assist children looking to develop their bilingual capabilities.

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