The Bilingual Zoo: New support forum for parents

I’ve written here before about Bilingual Monkeys, which is a great website full of information about raising bilingual children. There is a new spin-off from the website, The Bilingual Zoo, which is a proper forum for parents looking for support from other families on the same journey. I think this is a great initiative; parents need a place to post questions and get quick answers and share the trials, tribulations and triumphs of raising children with more than one language. A community like this only works with support from the members, so if you are interested in collaborating and sharing, head over to Bilingual Monkeys for more about the new forum, and links to registration. Looking forward to seeing you there, and thanks Adam for the great initiative!

Five ways your school can support multilingualism

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As we come to the end of the school year I’ve been reflecting on how much the school impacts successful bilingual development. Most schools are not “bilingual” schools, or “immersion” schools, or indeed any kind of language-based school model. Many schools believe that their only job is to ensure that all their pupils master the language of the school, which therefore absolves them from any need to support multilingualism or the development of their pupils’ “other” languages. This, despite the fact that research clearly demonstrates that the pathway to success in a new language at school is best achieved through supporting the first/home language. After more than 20 years (yes, I am that old…) working in the field of education and language-education, I’ve seen many good models of bilingualism in education, and some poor models too. What I have seen this year, for the first time, is the immense impact that the school can have on “later bilinguals”. We all know that children who start school in a new language at a very young age (pre-school to school age) are generally very successful and seem to acquire the school language quickly. Older children, however, these “late bilinguals” are children who switch schools to a new language after about 7-8 years of age. The transition for these children is generally much more difficult, as the academic weight of schooling increases with age, therefore the language level necessary to learn well also increases.
The children pictured above are from my older daughter’s class. They all started Year 5 (final year of primary school) in September, in a new school, and most of them in a new language. The children in the class were almost exclusively monolingual – French, Italian, Spanish, German, Polish, Urdu, Portuguese, and Russian speaking. Some of them “had a little English” or “had a little Dutch”, but there were only two children in the class who were truly at ease in English and one other language. The photo was taken last week, at their end of year fair. I chose this photo to represent the growth of the class because it captures perfectly my message today. When children are encouraged to celebrate *all* their languages, they grow in ways we, as parents and teachers, can not begin to imagine.

Yesterday we attended the “leaving ceremony” for the Year 5 pupils, and it was another example of the power of positive/additive bilingualism. The children from the Dutch section performed a play in which they traveled through different countries and used Dutch, English, French, German and Spanish in their performance. I’m sure that many parents did not understand all of the play, but the kids did, and they all celebrated each other’s languages by integrating them all into the play. The English section performed a play in which they reflected on their process of starting as a group of diverse children who could not communicate and ending as a cohesive group of children who can all work and play together.

So what is their school (The European School The Hague) doing to facilitate this process? It may seem that their mandate as a “European School” with a multilingual mandate gives them an advantage, and that other schools can not hope to achieve the same kind of success. But really, any school can promote the growth – linguistic, cognitive and social – of their bi/multilingual pupils, in these simple ways:

1. Embrace all the languages spoken in the school, both in word and in deed. Use visual support around the school, verbal support in and out of class, and affective support to let all children know that their first/home language has value.
2. Encourage children to share together their different languages, and to understand how they are different and similar.
3. Show through positive modeling that all languages are of equal value in the school environment, even if one is more “useful” for school purposes. In particular, let children use their first/home languages together to help them learn content and ensure understanding when they are still learning the school language.
4. Involve parents. Children who have parents who speak another language often believe that this is something to be ashamed of – how many minority parents hear from their child “Mummy, please don’t speak to me in x-language at school – it’s embarrassing!”. Bring parents into the school to read in their language to whole classes, to demonstrate that other languages are also used for communication and literacy, and to help the monolingual children better understand the position of the children who are language learners.
5. Never make language a source of punishment. Languages – all languages – are important and useful and beautiful. Punishing a child for their language use is not only unfair, it is also cruel, and so very detrimental to their overall development in and out of school. There are many positive ways to encourage children to use the school language without being punitive about their own language.

If you have a bi/multilingual child in a mainly monolingual school, have a think about how your school thinks about bilingualism. Are they promoting “additive bilingualism” (we think it is great you speak another language and we want to *add* the school language to this) or “subtractive bilingualism” (it doesn’t matter that you speak another language, here only the school language is important”). And if you come to the conclusion that they are not as “additive” as they should be, I challenge you to make this your personal project for the next school year!

Let’s talk about Dutch Mother Tongue support (Hup! Hup! Holland!)

So as the rest of the country sits wide awake, glued to the Netherlands-Argentina game, I too am considering the position of Dutch in the world, but the language, not the football team. Don’t feel sorry for me; I’d really rather think about language than watch the World Cup semi-finals… (small confession: the game is on, but the sound is muted – I know the horns will alert me if there is a goal).

So why am I pondering support for Dutch as a mother tongue from my sofa in the Netherlands? Because all over the world there are children being raised with Dutch as one of, but not their only language, for a variety of reasons. Some of them may have a parent on a foreign posting (a footballer perhaps?) and others may have a Dutch-speaking parent (or Flemish speaking!) but are being raised outside the Netherlands. But for whatever reason, these children are in the process of being raised as bilinguals, in a place where schooling is not available in their “mother tongue” or L1. This weekend I have been invited to speak at a training conference for an organisation that trains and provides Dutch L1 teachers to schools and organisations around the world. I think this is a fantastic initiative. To be completely frank, Dutch is not a widely spoken language. It’s a small country, and even when you add the numbers of Flemish speakers from across the border (sorry Vlaams speakers – I am considering it “Dutch” for the purposes of this article, although I am very aware that it is not “just Dutch”!) there are still not that many people in the world who speak Dutch.
So if you are abroad with your Dutch-speaking children, either temporarily or permanently, you may not have a lot of resources available to help your child’s Dutch grow and thrive. Language One helps international schools and other private organisations provide “mother tongue” tuition for many of these children which would not otherwise be available. This is important on many levels. For children temporarily out of the country, it’s important that their Dutch language skills continue to grow at an age-appropriate rate, so that when they come “home” they can reintegrate back into Dutch schools and Dutch society. For Dutch-speaking children permanently abroad, language support gives them a chance to grow their Dutch skills in a school-based setting, so that they develop a level of Dutch that will allow them to access their own culture and connect with their “Dutchness”.
If I were a business person, I’d consider this a great model – there are so many expats and immigrants around the world that would be delighted to have an organisation provide qualified, trained L1 teachers to their schools or companies. It’s a valuable service that supports the growth and development of the growing “Third Culture Kid” population, and provides possibilities for positive in-school models of bilingualism. But I’m not a business person, so I’ll just say I think this is a great initiative, and I hope that it becomes available for other languages one day too. And I look forward to working with these “Language One” pioneers on Saturday!

If you only buy one book about bilingualism… (A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism)

I actually say that every time I do a seminar on raising bilingual children. I take my copy, and I show it around, and tell the parents that *this* is the book to buy. So what is so great about this book already (it’s been top of my recommended resources list since I started) and what makes the new edition even better?

The book is for parents and teachers who are bilinguals themselves, for parents and teachers who are monolingual, and for other professionals such as doctors, speech therapists, practicing psychologists, counsellors, and teachers who want to know more. xvii

Really, it is for *everyone* who is interested and needs to know about bilingualism. It isn’t a niche book. It doesn’t speak only to parents or to academics, like so many books. It is accessible enough for the lay-person to find it easy and enjoyable and thorough and research-based enough for the professional to treat the ideas within it with respect. Colin Baker not only knows about bilingualism, he also knows how to talk about it so others can understand it.

One of the great things about this book is the format. It’s a question-and-answer format, divided into themed sections. So if you have a question or concern, you can look it up in the index and be directed to a 1-2 page answer to that specific question. This also makes it easy to share a page or two with a friend, teacher, doctor… who may be giving you poor advice! However, if you want the whole picture, you can get this from reading the sections together as a “chapter”. For example, you can read the whole section on “Language Development Questions” to get a good overview of bilingual language development. Or, you can dip in to just one question, if, for example, you are concerned about whether one person should speak more than one language with your child (B15 – Should my child use two languages with the same person?).
So, whether you use it as a “textbook” or to answer the questions that inevitably crop up on the journey to bilingualism, this book will help you along the way.

The fourth edition has some interesting additions that reflect how the bilingual community is changing. New sections include questions about IT and the Internet, Translanguaging, International Education, Adoption and many others that further refine areas dealing with language input patterns, and areas of difficulty. These additional sections serve to widen the knowledge base presented in the book and respond to new developments in the bilingual child paradigm and new research in the field.

And so, A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism will remain in my top resources list, with the new 4th edition cementing its place as “Most Valuable Book”.

Below is a clickable link (cheer for my technical progress!) to the book on Amazon.

(NB: I was asked to review the book but do not profit in any way financially from either the review or the sales from this link.)

The One Book

Really? Can kids with Language Impairment or _____ Learn TWO Languages?


Another fantastic post that explains why children who have language delays or other learning issues can become bilingual. It’s a question that comes up often, and is usually accompanied by the advice to “drop a language”, which is nether necessary nor necessarily beneficial.

Originally posted on 2 Languages 2 Worlds:

Is the earth round, really? It seems flat to me. I’ve been in many places in the world and I haven’t heard about anyone falling off it and so from my own logic and experience it appears the earth is flat. This is how evidence goes it seems and I find myself getting frustrated but I do try to understand the logic of disbelief– even in light of evidence. Yes, the earth is round (a sphere actually) and children with language impairment and those with other disabilities that affect language learning CAN (and do) become bilingual. No, they do not become MORE delayed.

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Most Teacher Preparation Falls Short on Strategies for ELLs, NCTQ Finds – Learning the Language – Education Week

Although US-based, this article points out the same issues that teacher-training programs in Europe present – a lack of training, either complete or adequate, for supporting the needs of language learners in mainstream classrooms. It’s such a wide-spread problem, and so little, institutionally speaking, is being done to address it in a consistent manner.
Our “Beyond EAL” research project in the UK which just finished the pilot phase is attempting to bridge the growing gap between numbers of language learners in schools, and numbers of teachers qualified to support them effectively throughout the curriculum. In my next post I’ll talk more about the pilot project and our preliminary results, and some early-buy-exciting outcomes. Watch this space!

Most Teacher Preparation Falls Short on Strategies for ELLs, NCTQ Finds – Learning the Language – Education Week.

It’s DRONGO time again! Join us for a day of multilingual delights (Sept. 27)

It may seem a bit precocious to be announcing a festival upcoming in September, but it is never too early to mark it on your calendar!
Last year’s DRONGO, the second edition, was a roaring success, with over 7,000 visitors over the day. This year’s promises to be bigger and better!

I am once again organising the Children’s Program, and here is what is new and old:

- Our “A Very Multilingual Caterpillar” was a standing-room only success last year. We are reprising our multilingual reading of this universal children’s classic, but changing the format somewhat. In order to accommodate larger audiences and little listeners who need to come and go, this event will be held twice, in the main area of the Children’s Library (rather than in the theatre)

- The Multilingual Children’s Lab will have a published schedule of events, so you can plan your visit around what you want to hear/see and what activities your children would like to participate in also. Some tidbits to tempt you…

- The European School Bergen will be hosting “speed language lessons” for children. In these short sessions your children can try out a variety of languages in a fun environment

- One Globe Kids will be bringing their fabulous interactive app that lets kids hear and see children from around the world, and experience their culture and languages

- Theater Luister will be bringing their “educatief voorleestheater” to the festival, with additional sessions on reading in other languages after the show (Theater Luister)

These are just some of the fantastic activities that will happen over the day. If you are involved with an organisation that supports bilingualism/multilingualism/language learning for children and you are interested in being involved, please email me (language schools, bilingual creche/nursery/schools/play groups, “Saturday” heritage language schools etc.).

Important information for your Calendar:

Event: DRONGO Festival of Multilingualism
Date: September 27, 2014
Time: 11:00-18:00
Place: Amsterdam Public Library (Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam)
More information: DRONGO 2014


Normal “Delayed” Bilingual Vocabulary Acquisition


This is a very clear post from a specialist in bilingual speech development, showing how research demonstrates that bilingual children can be, and often are, identified as “speech delayed” when in fact they are not. Vocabulary counts are used widely in assessing the productive speech of young children, and this research shows clearly that evaluating only one language will give an incomplete and erroneous picture of the development of a bilingual child.

Originally posted on 2 Languages 2 Worlds:

Bilingual children, whether they’re sequential or simultaneous bilinguals have divided input. In their every day experiences. Because of this, they often know some words in their L1 and other words in their L2; some words (but not ALL) they know in both. There are a number of studies that shows this for children at different ages.

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Adoption and Language Issues: Should our children be bilingual?

This topic came to me through a seminar attendee, and it is a question being posed by more and more families, as the rates of international adoption rise. Children adopted from “abroad” arrive in their new homes speaking a different language, and have a great need to learn their new language quickly, in order to acclimate and partake in their new family and culture. In many cases, these children are considered as, and treated as, bilinguals. But are they in reality bilingual? And more to the point, should they be bilingual?
There are, of course, no easy answers. But there are some areas to consider and some things families can do to smooth the way for their new arrivals.
Firstly, most internationally adopted children are not truly bilingual. If anything, they are transitional bilinguals, who have a first language which very quickly gives way to the new language. This process of language attrition, or loss, is often called “subtractive bilingualism”, which is when one language replaces another. Most literature on bilingualism tends to consider subtractive bilingualism to be a “bad” thing, with the normal goal being “additive bilingualism”, which is adding a new language and maintaining the old language. However, in the case of internationally adopted children, there are very often no resources easily available to help support the child’s first language, and no real communicative necessity, unless the first language is a part of the every day life of the family. It is also known that internationally adopted children tend to “lose” their first language very quickly – even as soon as 3-6 months after arrival in their new home they often have very little expressive language left. It is not known for certain why this process of attrition happens so quickly, but best guesses tend towards the child’s great desire to fit in with their new environment, and possibly also to associated bad feelings about the country of origin or placement pre-adoption. In addition, the usual complete lack of necessity means that the children do not see the point of continuing with their first language.
There are families who attempt to support the first language of their new arrivals, either by finding a “community of practice” or by engaging babysitters or tutors who use the language with the children. This seems to meet with limited success in terms of absolute language maintenance in most cases. However, the message that any support sends to the children about the value of their first language and culture is not to be ignored. Children who arrive in a new country with no language or cultural skills undergo a massive world-shift in a very short time. Having no means to explore and explain and question the process would necessarily be a very isolating experience, especially for older children. Having the opportunity to use their language to communicate with another child, an adult, a teacher, gives them an emotional outlet that they will otherwise be denied. The time frame in which the child chooses to use their first language may be short, but the sense of security and outlet for expression it would provide them could be powerful. So at the least, I would encourage parents to try and find someone that their child can speak with in their first language to help with the transition period, and to ensure that the child knows that their first language and culture have value, even as they transition towards their new language and culture.
With no or little resources to support “bilingualism”, parents of new arrivals can still plan for the best possible transition support. These are some points to consider when making a plan:

1. What do we know about our child’s proficiency in their first language?
Ideally, you need to know how their language development is, in terms of both passive and active language skills, and literacy, if applicable. This will help with support at school – the difference between getting support for a child who has a language delay in their first language and will need intensive support to acquire the new language, and a child who had “limited English (or other) proficiency” who will need different types of learning support.

2. Keep in mind the different types of language proficiency.
BICS (basic interpersonal communicative skills) is the ability to engage in conversation about regular activities and context-dependent speech. Internationally adopted children tend to develop this proficiency very quickly, as they are highly motivated. CALP (cognitive academic language proficiency) is the ability to do deeper processing, of the type needed to succeed in school. Comparing, analysing, evaluating, and understanding of conceptual rather than concrete are all underpinned by CALP. This type of proficiency takes much longer than BICS, and in fact can take up to seven years or more to fully develop. During the gap period, when children have reached BICS but not CALP, they are much more likely to be identified as “learning delayed” or needing special educational help, as they will not necessarily perform as well as parents and educators expect, as they seem “fluent” in their new language.

3. What support can we give or arrange for our children while they are still “language learners”?
The answer to this question depends in large part, but not exclusively, on the school chosen. A solid understanding of language development (including BICS and CALP) and a willingness to educate teachers and administrators is a good first step. Knowledge of language development is not widespread across our schools yet, so we need to be the ones to carry the banner for our children. Very often internationally adopted children are grouped with “bilinguals” and offered the same support, but in fact their process is very different to children who maintain their first language at home. Parents can also support learning at home, in a variety of ways. There are some good resources available through the Post-Adoption Learning Center, including courses designed to help older children develop school skills (like the SmartStart Program: Helping an Internationally Adopted Child Develop a Foundation for Learning.
Toolbox II, Ages 5 to 8

Other resources may be available through local centres and organisations, especially where there are larger concentrations of children arriving from the same region.

Whatever resources you choose, and however you do or do not support the first language of your newly arrived child, it is fundamentally important to realise that this journey of learning and acclimation is a marathon and not a sprint. Even though many of these children “seem fine” very quickly and seem to need little support for language or learning, appearances can be deceiving and lack of attention and lack of a support plan in the early years can lead to long-term academic consequences which are much harder to rectify years down the line.

Euromarkt: Come and meet multilingual Europe (and a little bit of the world…)

On May 18, the European School Bergen is hosting their annual “Euromarkt”. For those of you lucky enough to live within reach, it will be a day spent in multilingual activity and enjoyment. The school parents’ committee hosts the event, and different country groups provide entertainment, food and fun. There will be a multilingual book market (great place to pick up some affordable books in other languages!), a flea market (multilingual fleas?), as well as a wide variety of games and activities for all ages of kids and kids-at-heart. Entry is free, everything else is pay-as-you-go. Details can be found here: Euromarkt

I had the pleasure of visiting ESB recently, as they will be partnering with CEC for the 2014 DRONGO Festival of Multilingualism in Amsterdam. Although my children also attend a European school, it is a new school and not fully up and running. The opportunity to visit a “full-fledged” European school and visit all the age levels, from nursery through secondary school, was a great visual and aural reminder for me of how multilingualism in schools can be not only achieved but also nurtured and celebrated. For more information, visit the school website: European School Bergen

For any parents in the Bergen/Amsterdam area who might be considering a multilingual school for their children, you can visit the school and chat with one of the staff or heads during the Euromarkt, and get a feel for what the school is like for kids and parents alike. For those raising children speaking other (mainly European) languages, it is also a great opportunity to show your children a community of practice, where other parents and children use their language, and within a school environment. This, in itself, it an invaluable opportunity for minority language speaking families.


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