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Working with Multilingual Families


by Susan Stewart, International School of London, Surrey, United Kingdom

Language acquisition, of a single language or two languages simultaneously, is an innate and naturally occurring phenomenon. In recent years, the press has done much to highlight the advantages of being bilingual, which is an improvement on the negative messages in the 1960s and 70s. However, the myths of previous years linger on, and many questions and concerns surrounding the use of languages stem from some common misunderstandings about the process of language acquisition.

Creating a Common Understanding

As Head of Languages at the International School of London (Surrey), I run regular workshops entitled ‘Raising your Bilingual Child’ to ISL Surrey parents and members of the local community. I also encourage all staff to attend the workshops with parents, so that they hear first-hand the questions and answers to the most common concerns. This ensures a consistent use of language acquisition terminology by all stakeholders. These workshops are free of charge and have been attended by some 600 participants over the past five years.

These workshops focus on:

  • the process and rate of language acquisition
  • the development of academic language
  • the reasons why a parent should use their language, and only their language, with their child.

The most powerful visual to illustrate bilingual language acquisition is Jim Cummins’ triangles, which highlight the ‘common underlying proficiency’ between the two languages and the transfer of skills between the languages. This also shows the concept of passive vs active language, and the need for us to look the sum of a multilingual child’s languages, and not only at the proficiency of one of the languages in isolation.

A Continual Process

Over time, a parent's questions and concerns will change. When joining the school, they might be concerned about their child managing to access the school curriculum with limited English. A year later, their concern might be the maintenance of their child’s academic proficiency in their home language. And as families prepare to leave ISL Surrey, parents might be concerned about how their child will manage to transfer back to their home country schooling system, whilst not losing their English. Many parents attend the workshop annually, and although the main message of the workshop does not change, the parents’ changing focus means that they will develop a new level of understanding after each session.

Likewise for staff, it is not sufficient to run a training session/workshop once a year and hope that this will be enough to change practice. By having these workshops as an ongoing feature of school life, it keeps the conversation going and allows all to evolve in their understanding of the process of language acquisition at their own pace.

Some Common Questions

What do I do when my child replies to me in English?
If your child has experienced their day in English, it is easier for them to talk about it in English. Your child also uses English with you because they know you are bilingual. If this happens, you should not respond in English. The most important thing is to keep the conversation going and keep using your language with your child, even if they continue in English. If you force your child to answer in your language, you will stop the flow of the conversation, and possibly create a negative attitude towards your language.

My child mixes languages. Should I worry?
No, you should not worry. Mixing languages is part of the natural process of simultaneous bilingualism. These mixtures are often quite charming and it is a good idea to write them down for future amusement! Your child may mix languages, but you should not. Continue with your language.

How can I help my child with their English (the new school language)?
You can help your child’s English by ensuring that they have a solid foundation in their home language; their acquisition of English will be built on this. Your job is not to teach your child English–they have teachers and friends to do this.

What do we do when we are with other English speakers? My partner does not understand my language, so what should we speak at the dinner table?
Your child knows that you speak English and so a group conversation would logically take place in the common language, English. However, if you have something to say to your child, which no one else needs to understand, then it is entirely natural and normal for you to use your home language.

Does my child know that he/she is bilingual?
Your child only knows that they are bilingual if you tell them. They do, however, instinctively know which language(s) to use with whom.

Is it ok to translate things into English if my child doesn’t understand?
No, you should not translate anything into English. You should rather just talk around the issue, describing it in another way, until they understand.

Do bilingual children take longer to speak?
No, they do not. This is the most common myth which worries parents. Studies have compared girls and boys, monolinguals and bilinguals, and different cultural groups. There is not a greater difference between mono- and bilinguals, than between any of these other groups. It seems that there are just children who are ‘listeners’ and those who are ‘speakers’.

When should my child start to learn to read in my language?
The first question to answer is: Does your child need to read and write in your language; are you planning to move your child back into an educational system which requires literacy in this language? If yes, then the ideal situation would be a bilingual schooling system, after-school tutoring, or a Saturday school. If not, then there is no urgency. Literacy can be developed at any point in the future, even as an adult. The best way for you to support your child’s developing literacy is to read to them on a daily basis. Your child will grow up feeling familiar with the shape and form of your language. Reading gives your child a form of rich, academic language.

Susan Stewart is Head of Languages at the International School of London (ISL), Surrey. ISL Surrey offers a Languages programme, currently covering 17 different mother tongue languages, taught to all students from age 3. The lessons take place during the school day and the programme is fully integrated within the school's curriculum. Literacy is developed across both languages - English and the mother tongue language - with teachers regularly ensuring that there is a cross-over of skills between the languages.

Posted by CIS on Friday April, 21

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