An interview with Jürgen M. Meisel

Jürgen M. Meisel is Professor emeritus and former Chair of the Research Center on Bilingualism at the Universität Hamburg, as well as Adjunct Professor and Distinguished Fellow, Faculty of Arts, University of Calgary. He has been engaged in parent counselling for more than thirty-five years. He is a founding editor of the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, and the author of seven books and numerous articles. Cambridge Extra asked him about his new book, Bilingual Children: a guide for parents, published by Cambridge University Press.

Interviewed by Andrew Winnard, Executive Publisher, Cambridge University Press

What motivated you to write ‘Bilingual Children’?

Soon after I had begun to study language acquisition by children growing up with two languages simultaneously, more than 30 years ago, I was asked by parents who considered raising their children bilingually whether this might not have negative effects for children’s linguistic, intellectual, or even social development. I thus got involved in various kinds of counselling activities from early on and am still involved in this today. I soon realized that the questions asked most frequently, for example whether children would not get linguistically or cognitively confused when exposed to more than one language at an early age, concerned issues that were also in the focus of research during the late 1980’s and the 1990’s. In fact, already at this time, some of these questions could be answered with much confidence, given that the findings on which the answers are based are widely agreed upon among researchers – a not so common state-of-affairs in the humanities. This is, of course, not true for all those aspects of child bilingualism that parents consider as potentially problematic. But research on this topic has made such significant progress over that past 40 years that even the more controversial issues can be addressed with sufficient confidence. Today, early bilingualism is viewed much more favourably then 40 years ago, at least in many parts of the world. However, in spite of considerable efforts trying to inform about what is known about bilingualism in preschool years, one still encounters a surprising mixture of facts and fiction when media report on bilingual children, and parents receive contradictory advice and recommendations from family members and friends. I therefore think that a book that provides fact-based answers to the most pressing questions by parents or other caregivers should be useful.

What do you hope readers will get from the book?

My experience in counselling parents of children growing up bilingually over all these years has taught me that the majority of those who ask for advice are already quite well-informed about many aspects of early bilingualism. In fact, many of them have a good idea about what they want to do or do not want to do in raising their children bilingually. However, they are confronted with conflicting opinions in the media, in the advice offered by others, e.g. pediatricians. A guide for parents must take this into account. It will not suffice to present basic information about child bilingualism and offer advice reflecting the author’s opinions and beliefs. People who are willing to buy and read a book on this topic deserve in-depth information on the pros and cons of bilingualism at a very young age. My main goal is to help them to disentangle facts from fiction and to enable them to make decisions that will help them to reach their educational goals. Needless to say that I myself view child bilingualism positively, but this does not mean that I might try to talk parents into raising their children bilingually. Rather, I hope to have provided them with much of the information necessary in order to achieve the goals that they have set for themselves and for the linguistic development of their children. And I also hope to have given sufficient practical advice on how to go about when confronted with difficult or problematic situations that might arise in bilingual families.

What relation, if any, is there between a child’s intelligence and their ability to learn more than one language as they’re growing up?

There is definitely no relation between a child’s intelligence and the ability to learn more than one language. All children are born with what we can call a ‘Language Making Capacity’ that unfolds and develops in the course of children’s first years of life. The perhaps most important insight gained by studies of bilingual acquisition is that this Language Making Capacity is an endowment for multilingualism. In other words, children can acquire more than one ‘first’ language simultaneously. All that is required is exposure to more than one language in meaningful interactions where parents, other family members or other caregivers address them in these languages. One might even say that monolingualism is the result of a situation in which children are exposed to an impoverished input consisting of utterances in only one language although a bi- or multilingual setting would have allowed them to acquire more than one native language.

Discover more about Bilingual Children: a guide for parents

Image Credit: University of Calgary 

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