[Letters] Bilingualism: handicap or a gift?

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[Letters] Bilingualism: handicap or a gift?

On March 5, the JoongAng Daily’s front page featured an article titled “Multicultural kids hit a language wall.” The article dealt with the language development of children from so-called “multicultural families.” Nobody will argue that the language development of bilingual children differs from that of monolingual children. However, there are a few points made in the article that we would like to comment on.

First of all, the article implied that bilingualism impairs intelligence by citing the case of Hyeon-ji. This assumption, however, has already been long refuted by studies in older immigration countries such as in Canada or the United States, the most known study being Lambert and Pearl (1962).

Studies before this that showed negative influence on intelligence used mostly faulty methodology, testing the children only in their weaker language or comparing bilingual children from lower social classes with middle-class monolingual children. It seems to us the same might have been the case with the child featured in the article.

If bilingualism even has a positive influence on the intelligence of children has not been agreed on, but it surely does not have any negative influence.

Second, the point that “these children need additional educational sessions and psychological therapy in addition to formal schooling,” as one expert is cited in the article, is at least arguable in its generality. There is no question that if at home another language than Korean is spoken, public education has to pick up some of the language education that is otherwise done at home.

We dare to argue, however, that in most cases there will not be need for psychological therapy or even language “therapy.” One has to differentiate carefully between cases where there is a basic language development disorder and cases where children are perfectly capable of expressing themselves, just maybe not in the same way as monolingual children. By making bilingual language development per se a case for therapy, those children are being more stigmatized than helped.

Third, the article implicitly criticized the Japanese mother who avoided speaking in Korean to her daughter Hyeon-ji. This criticism is inappropriate. As a parent it is not only very difficult, but also not of any benefit for your children to speak to them in a language which is not your mother tongue or which you don’t master like a native speaker. Since children tend to imitate their parents’ speaking, they will naturally make the same mistakes as their parents.

Furthermore, if children like Hyeon-ji merely learn the language of one of their parents they miss the unique chance of growing up speaking two languages and it will be much more difficult to understand both of their parents’ cultures.

Therefore, what children in multicultural families need are competent speakers in both languages. If one of the parents is not able to play this role, public language education, starting from kindergarten, has to take it on.

All in all, the article betrays a perception of bilingual children from multicultural families that is all too prominent in the current discussion in Korean society, but is far from missing the point. That is that those children are handicapped and disadvantaged.

Bilingualism or being “multicultural” is not a problem; it is the perfectly natural result if one of your parents has a different mother tongue, or you speak different languages at home and outside.

What is mostly missing from the discussion is the fact that even though those children might develop their Korean language ability at a different pace from their monolingual peers, they understand and speak two languages. This should be considered personal enrichment and might become a great asset in their later life.

In most cases, language abilities will sort themselves out in due time. In those cases that are problematic, the causes are more often of a social nature than of linguistic. If learning two languages at an early age per se was the problem, one would question English language education in Korea.


Barbara Wall, Ph.D. student at Korea University,

and Alexandra Lottje, Ph.D. student at Yonsei University

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