But not really. (So if any of those things do happen, don't blame the second language!)
Here's the best list I've encountered which enumerates and quickly dispels common myths about bilingualism, courtesy Prof. François Grosjean, author, linguist, parent, and all-around expert in this area: Myths About Bilingualism.
For today, I'd like to address the intersection of these two myths: "bilingual children experience language delays" and "being bilingual requires equal fluency in both languages."
Once upon a time, I was a French teacher, an aunt, and a part-time babysitter. My sister-in-law had suggested that since I knew French, I might as well speak French to my nephew, Carl, while taking care of him one afternoon a week. So I made the effort to learn vocabulary that had never before appeared in my French conversation or reading ("bouncy chair," "put the pumped milk into the bottle warmer," "what in the world is that foul odor?", "Can't I just cut the onesie off him after a diaper blow-out?") and spent many happy hours reading and singing and taking walks with Carl, all in French.
|Tatie and Carl, 2006
Clearly, being exposed to two languages from infancy didn't delay his language acquisition (nor did it impede his English ability).
Now, let's take a look at the other end of the spectrum: my daughter Gwyneth. She's almost three and a half, and her speech in English is often nearly as unintelligible as her French.
She has a lot to say, mind you, but chances are a stranger would have trouble deciphering it, what with the consonants she mispronounces ("ewewewatow" for "elevator") or drops altogether ("et" for "yet"), the sounds she transposes ("smoothie" becomes "soomie"), her occasional French words ("I a loup and my brover a loup"), her occasional missing words ("I no" which means "I don't know"), her even-less-frequent Spanish words (mostly numbers and bits of songs that she picks up at her Spanish immersion preschool) and the family-specific ideas she tends to reference (such as zerberts, sleep-unders, and tuck-tucks).
See, we know what she means because we speak English, French, and Gwynese. My wittle eye sawt wit wew.** (Doesn't that just make you want to give her a big squeezey hug?! So cute.)
Given the fact that she was barely talking at 18 months, and not saying much as a two-year-old, I might characterize Gwyneth's speech as "delayed" (or perhaps just "confusing"), but there's no reason to attribute it to her hearing two languages from birth. And for the record, both her pediatrician and her preschool teacher have reassured me that her language development is age appropriate, if perhaps on the low end of normal, and she did have an auditory test earlier this year just to make sure that she's hearing her consonants correctly.
Griffin's linguistic development, on the other hand, fell somewhere in between his sister and his cousin--neither astonishingly early nor a little late. Again, I don't think that had anything to do with the languages he was hearing at home.
I did hear a lot of code-switching from Griffin as a toddler, though, particularly with nouns. His sentences usually consisted of pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and prepositions in English, plus nouns in French. I'm sure that this is because the majority of books he knew were in French, and we encounter words in books--volcano, hedgehog, leprechaun--that tend not to appear regularly in conversation.
(Code-switching, by the way, is neither a myth nor improper speech, but a normal stage in language development. It doesn't occur because kids are confused, but rather because some words are easier to access in a certain language and those are the ones that come out first. Later on, code-switching can be a deliberate choice when a person wants to use a word or phrase in the other language for emphasis, humor, or to identify herself as a member of a group.)
(By the way, the thought of Gwyneth the teenager terrifies me.)
So I can't say that Griff and Gwyn are bilingual, right? Despite my efforts and their passive understanding of French, they simply are not as fluent in their second language. In fact, I often suspect that my own French isn't strong enough to be considered fluent--talking on the phone can reduce me to caveman-like stammers, I miss a lot in movies when the characters are speaking fast, using slang, or not facing the camera, I can't engage in political discussions, some of the literature I studied in grad school reduced me to tears, and my accent immediately betrays me as a Anglophone.
I learned not to dwell on these perceived inadequacies, however, when I started speaking exclusively in French to my infant son. I didn't want to feel self-conscious, so I kept reminding myself that even if my kids ended up speaking a second language imperfectly, that would still be much better than only speaking one language, period.
"Some bilinguals are dominant in one language, others do not know how to read and write in one of their languages, others have only passive knowledge of a language and, finally, a very small minority, have equal and perfect fluency in their languages. What is important to keep in mind is that bilinguals are very diverse, as are monolinguals."
In other words, non-native speakers like me can achieve fluency in our second languages, and we can proudly call ourselves--and our children--bilinguals.
|ma famille, 2011
**Whereas an autobiography called "My Wittle Eye Sawt Wit Wew" probably wouldn't make the bestseller lists.