The more, the merrier: bilingualism across the lifespan

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The more, the merrier: facts and beliefs about the bilingual mind

Antonella Sorace

University of Edinburgh
To appear in Della Sala, S. (ed.) 2006. Tall Tales about the Mind and Brain: Separating Fact from Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The more, the merrier: facts and beliefs about the bilingual mind


Anyone who has seen a small child switching from one language to another is likely to be amazed – and perhaps envious – at how effortlessly they are able to do this. Stories of immigrant children interpreting for their parents are commonplace, and in some parts of the world it is quite normal for children to be exposed to two or even more languages right from birth. Yet in modern industrial societies growing up with more than one language is often regarded as ‘special’. Bilingualism is still surrounded by false beliefs and misunderstandings, even among the otherwise educated and scientifically-minded. Many people are ready to believe that handling two languages at the same time is too much of a burden for the infant’s brain, or that the languages compete for resources in the brain at the expense of general cognitive development. The contrast between and these false beliefs and the amazement often expressed by people at how easily children pick up two or more languages has been termed the ‘bilingual paradox’ (Petitto & Kovelman 2003).

Why are these beliefs so resilient? Their enduring popularity might have to do, at least in part, with the fact that many people find it difficult to think scientifically about language, and therefore everyone feels entitled to have strong opinions about it: the world is full of linguistics experts. With regard to bilingualism, opinions are unfortunately not restricted to the domain of academic discussion, but often inform decisions – by parents, professional educators, policy makers – that end up affecting children’s lives. Many new parents who want their children to speak two languages for family reasons are likely to have heard somewhere that exposure to two languages can cause problems, so they may abandon bilingualism before they even give it a try, or may plan to introduce one of the languages only after the other is ‘well established’ and then find to their regret that the second language never has a chance. If they successfully establish bilingualism in their pre-school children, they may well be made to feel that they’ve created a problem by well-meaning primary school teachers, who are often ready to blame bilingualism for any performance problems. In this situation the parents may abandon successful bilingualism and even make active efforts will be made to re-establish monolingualism to ‘cure’ the problem. Given the sociological repercussions of these folk linguistic beliefs, it seems valuable to bridge the gap between the scientific approach to the study of bilingual cognition and what many people believe about life with two languages. In this chapter, we try to dissect some particularly strong misconceptions that are still alive and well and affecting the daily lives of bilinguals.

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