What do we mean when we talk about bilingualism?
We define bilingualism as having some ability to use two or more languages.
Across the globe, the majority of the population is either bilingual or multilingual. In Australia, over 200 different languages are spoken, with roughly 19% of the population speaking a language other than English.
Levels of bilingualism
There are varying degrees of bilingualism, and you don't have to speak both languages with equal fluency to be considered bilingual. In fact, native-like proficiency in both languages is rare. Most people will have a 'dominant' language.
This doesn't stop children from reaching a level of bilingualism that suits their lifestyle and needs. A child may be a passive bilingual - he or she has the ability to understand a second language but is unable to reply in that language.
A child may have basic bilingualism - when they can speak with family members and other adults but are behind monolingual children of the same age. Or they may have native-like ability - where their level of spoken language is hard to tell apart from their monolingual peers.
Whatever degree of proficiency you achieve, bilingualism or multilingualism can be a positive and enriching part of life. Especially for children and families who speak two or more languages either in the home or in the community.
How do children become bilingual?
There are several ways to bring up your child with more than one language.
The One Person-One Language pattern is a common way of doing it. This pattern is primarily used by families in which parents speak different native languages. For example, the family might live in Australia and the mother may speak English (the majority language) to the children, but the father might be from Switzerland and choose to speak his native languages, Swiss-German (the minority language), to the children.
This pattern has a lot of advantages, as parents are able to connect with their child in their own languages and the child is able to speak both languages, but it does require some planning and persistence.
Parents who want their children to do really well in the minority language should aim to offer a higher level of exposure to that language. Be consistent with your language choice, and support each other when using it in and outside the home.
Another common way to bring up your child bilingually is when parents speak the same minority languages. This is sometimes called the Minority language pattern. For example, two parents might have migrated from Peru to Australia, and speak Spanish to their children, while their children go to an English speaking school.
This method has the advantage that children receive larger exposure to the minority language through both parents. However, as parents, you may often feel pressure from others in the community to stop speaking your home language to your children. You need to remember the advantage of bilingualism and commit yourself to promoting and maintaining it.
Myths and misconceptions
While there are many advantages to be had through bilingualism, there are several myths and misconceptions which worry parents and carers. Some of these myths maybe familiar to you.
Myth 1: "Children will be confused"
Children are very capable of learning two or more languages simultaneously. They can also demonstrate they can distinguish between two languages at a very young age. Your children will learn quite early on that they need to speak German to Grandma, but English to the teacher.
Myth 2: "The child's English will suffer"
It has been shown that knowledge of a home language can actually help with the acquisition of the language of the community, for example English in Australia. Children with a solid foundation in their home language go on to learn the majority language more proficiently and achieve higher academic success than those whose home language is not well supported.
Myth 3: "Children will have problems reading and writing"
Studies have shown that bilingual children who are exposed to two writing systems go on to achieve high levels of reading and writing, and may even have a better understanding of the relationship between linguistic forums and meaning than their monolingual peers.
Myth 4: "Bilingualism delays language acquisition"
There is little evidence to support this statement. Research shows that bilingual children acquire language at the same rate as monolingual children. Some bilingual children may start speaking a bit later than their peers, but then so do some monolingual children!