Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Parents' & Teachers' Guide to Bilingualism

A personal review of A Parents' & Teachers' Guide to Bilingualism, 2nd Edition by Colin Baker. Please note that a new edition is now available.

Review Summary

I recently read A Parents' & Teachers' Guide to Bilingualism, 2nd Edition by Colin Baker. This is a second book I read about bilingualism in children and I overall I liked it. The book contains a lot of information about various aspects of raising bilingual children. However, like pretty much everything I've read about bilingualism, this book suffers from not being objective. It seems that all existing material about bilingualism has an agenda to push: bilingualism is good. This bias made the book annoying to me. Now, don't get me wrong: I am a big supporter of multilingualism. I enjoy learning languages myself and I am doing my best to raise my daughter to be trilingual. I strongly believe that knowing more languages makes your life richer in many ways. But it is irritating to read all those books and articles that brush aside obvious problems that come with multilingualism in the effort to promote it. I started the review by saying that l like this book overall and this is for one reason: it made me think more concretely about what a measure of success in being multilingual is (more about it below).

The Bias

The basic premise that I have a problem with is repeated throughout the book. Here's one example [from section E26]: "Languages don't exist in balance: the higher the one, the lower the other". This is obviously not true at many levels. Let's first consider pure language competence in the sense of how large one's vocabulary is. We learn language from many sources but for simplicity, let's focus on reading books. There's a finite number of books I can read in a given period of time. Say, I can read 100 books in some amount of time. If I read all 100 in one language, I will acquire a better vocabulary in this language than if I read 50 books in this language and 50 in another. I think that the basic disagreement between me and the author of the book is that he is happy if an individual acquires just a basic command of language you need in your everyday life: to connect with your community, have a conversation with a stranger etc. What we're losing is the extra difference between a person with average competency in a language and someone who truly mastered it. I don't think that the trade-off is always obvious.
And what's more, using language is not just about the vocabulary size. Using the language means living the culture of this language. So the vocabulary size is just one of the aspects where there will be a gap between a multilingual who knows a given language as one of a few languages and a monolingual who knows the culture related to that language in a more comprehensive way. The monolingual will have read more books, listened to more songs, watched more movies, used more web sites, talked to more friends, played more games etc in a given language than a person who lived the life of that language only part-time. Whether this is better or worse is a matter of your point of view and your values. I happen to think that even if I know fewer artifacts of a given culture, the fact that I can look at the culture both from the inside and from a perspective of another culture makes me understand this culture better. But do I expect that everyone will share my point of view? No. I realize that some people will think that knowing a single culture inside out is better than having direct experience with many cultures. And the fact that this book and everything else I've read about bilingualism doesn't give the same respect to this alternate point of view that monolingualism can be superior in some ways is what made me cringe when I was reading this book.

The Insight

All this brings me to what I think is the most valuable thing I took out of the book. What does it mean to be multilingual? Who are you comparing to and what are you comparing? Do you expect that in every of the languages a multilingual speaks, their command of that language will be as good as of a monolingual person? This is not reasonable. Is is even desirable? No one will give you the answer. You have to decide what the answer for you is.

Interesting points

Unfortunately, the book doesn't provide references for the claims it makes and I would love to see what they are based one.  Since no evidence is provided, I ended up liking things that appeal to me either intuitively or because they match my personal experience.  In most cases my bias probably shows and I like things I want to believe.


Here's a collection of quotes I liked in the book.
A child who hears one language for half an hour a day is unlikely to grow competent in that language. When a child is deliberately exposed to an ever increasing variety of language in different contexts (e.g. books, listening to cassette tapes, visits to the zoo and park), a realistic chance of bilingualism exists. [A2]
If the parent uses two languages during the day to the same child, a potential problem is separation within the child of those two languages. [A7]
It is important to amplify that minority language rather than the majority language, especially in the early years. [...] some sheltering from the incessant blasts of the pervasive majority language is important. [B1]
There is generally little relationship between how quickly someone learns to speak one or two languages and eventual school success. Early language developers are not likely to be more successful in adult life -- however success is defined. [B2]
[...] consider comparing your bilingual child against other bilinguals and not against the fastest moving monolingual who sets the pace. [B2]
So, if efficiency is defined by the amount of time it takes to learn a second language, teenagers and adults tend to be superior to young children. [B3]
However, we therefore mustn't conclude that learning a language early on in life is better. Many people learn a second and third language later in life, and learn it fully and fluently. [B5]
This idea of balanced bilinguals, perfectly balanced in both their languages, is one muddled myth that surrounds bilingualism. [...] For a bilingual, each language tends to have different purposes, different functions and different uses. [B6]
Few bilinguals speak both their languages with native speaker fluency. [B19]
Translating as a game is artificial, patronizing and embarrassing. [B20]
It is likely that the bilingual child will not have as large a vocabulary in each language as the monolingual child. [C5]
Having a bilingual background is widely believed to produce language delayed children. The evidence does not support this. [C14]
The scholars concluded that mixed language background marriages were socially and emotionally valuable for teenagers. [C21]


And here's a collection of points that I do not agree with and that in my opinion are symptomatic of the book's bias:
Languages grow interdependently and with no long-term cost to each other. [A14]
Section [B4] mentions a few "studies published in academic journals". It's disappointing that each "study" is a case study of a single child. All parents know that children can be very different and it's impossible to generalize experiences based on one child to all other children.
I think that sections [B6] and [B9] contradict each other. The former says that it's impossible to be as fluent in each of many languages as one may be in one language. The latter says learning a second language helps with the first language.
The claims of section [B11] that bilingualism improves IQ are poorly explained and it is not obvious to me that the causality implied in this section is real or just wishful thinking.
However, ensuring a high degree of competence in the majority language need not be at the cost of minority language skills. Bilingualism is usually a case of addition and not subtraction; multiplication and not division. [B12]
There is currently no strong evidence that bilingualism has negative effects on the everyday functioning of the brain. [C7] What?! No strong evidence, so there is evidence, just not strong?
One thing is for sure. If you are a bad model of language for your child, you should not speak that language to your child. [C19] This is bizarre. Children are not machines for acquiring language in the most efficient way! For instance if a parent speaks the majority language with an accent (or is a bad model in another way for the majority language), that parent may want to use the majority language when meeting people who only speak the majority language. Otherwise the parent while not inflicting any language harm may be a bad model in life in other ways (for instance may be perceived by the child and others as antisocial or may cause miscommunication since others do not understand the minority language).
Learning more than two languages
This topic is of big interest to me but sadly, the following quotes from section [B16] is very consistent with my experience:
  • There is little research on trilingualism and multilingualism in the family to provide clear advice.
  • Stable trilingualism seems less likely than stable bilingualism.
The following quote is interesting and makes sense: One proviso about trilingualism is that at least one language needs developing fully. It is important in a child's cognitive development that at least one language develops at age-appropriate levels.

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