What Bilingualism Is (And What It Is Not)

“Don’t you worry she won’t learn English as well if you teach her to speak other languages too?”

“Won’t she only use sign language if she learns that first?”

“She’s going to mix everything up! I think you should really concentrate on just teaching her English.”

When I tell people who are not bilingual that we are teaching our daughter French, Spanish, and American Sign Language in addition to English, I often hear comments like the ones above. It seems to be common for people to believe that bilingualism leads to delayed language learning and that, as Americans, there is no reason for us to learn another language.

These ideas are absolutely false.

There have been many studies on the subject (this book compares several of them), and the general consensus is that learning another language actually improves a person’s ability to use their native language, among providing many other advantages. This may seem counterintuitive to many people but it is actually quite logical.

Think of learning another language as similar to learning another way to do math. Once you learn how to add, the next logical step is learning how to subtract. Once subtraction is mastered, the next things to learn are multiplication and division. Each new mathematical process adds to your overall understanding of math in general, but it also adds another layer of understanding to the previous procedures. Becoming proficient in subtraction makes addition easier and faster. Multiplication is basically looking at addition in a different way, and division looks at subtraction differently. Each skill makes the others easier and makes sense of them differently.

Language is the same way. At first, language can seem confusing, but most people don’t even have to think about how to speak their native language in order to make themselves understood. Another language only expands the world, never shrinks it. It opens the windows to new cultures, new viewpoints, new ways to express ourselves. It allows us to see our native language differently and realize how it affects our worldview.

Learning, in general, allows improvement for both individuals and the societies in which we live. Learning fuels our lives, so why would we ever limit ourselves by dismissing our potential?


(If you are at all interested in learning a foreign language, I really like the program, Duolingo. It is free, online, fun, and easy to use. It has multiple languages to choose from and are adding more all the time. It uses experience points to track your progress and offers a few fun in-game rewards for doing well, like a flirting lesson, an idiom lesson, and new outfits for the little owl character. It even has an app.)


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