Reflecting on Family Language Planning


Crisfield Educational Consulting Family Language Planning

Two interesting things happened the other day that led me to reflect on family language planning. The first was seeing a session description on a conference website claiming that the job of “family language advisor” is a new field of work that has developed due to the rise in multilingual families. The second was running into a family that I worked with eight years ago, and hearing their family update.

I can admit to some surprise at reading that family language planning is a new field of work, given that I have been working with families since 2005, and have acted as a “family language advisor” for well over a hundred families in that time in an official capacity. In an unofficial capacity, I’ve answered questions, concerns and strange queries from many, many more via email and my blog. It is true that there has been sudden upswing in people selling their services as family language consultants, for better or for worse. It’s an unregulated field, and anyone can call themselves an expert, but as in all services, buyer beware! The unfortunate truth is that many families could use support on their journey to raise bi/multilingual families, and good support can be hard to find, and costs money. I choose to blog (even though I find it hard!) to provide free information for as many families as possible, as not all can access my professional services for a variety of reasons. I often ask families that contact me via email if I can answer their questions in a blog post, as the answer will surely be helpful to other families as well. If you find yourself in the position of needing help and not having it available, please do send your question for upcoming blog posts.

The second incident happened at a community event where I live. I was approached by a couple with whom I had worked when they were expecting their first child (lucky for me that I have a very good memory and remembered them!). That child was now a seven-year old boy and well on his journey with three languages. It was lovely to hear their updates, and how their son is developing in his languages. It was especially nice for me because he was quite a textbook case, so all the advice I had given them was accurate and reflected his journey (I don’t get it right all the time, I’m sure!). I don’t often hear back from families I’ve worked with unless they come up against issues that they need help with, so it was nice to hear a pure success story. If you are a family I have worked with, please do feel free to send me updates –  your stories are helpful for me in growing my professional understanding of language development in families.

Family Language Planning isn’t always easy. Language in general, and in families in particular, can be a very emotional subject, and one that can cause disagreements between family members. Parents who are concerned about their children’s journey to bi/multilingualism often have been given conflicting advice from well-meaning friends or family, and sometimes professionals as well. Families put their trust in us, and hope that we will be able to provide the answers that they need. In return for that trust, we who are working in this “new” field need to ensure that we are professionally qualified and certified, and acting ethically in all regards.

Being Bilingual with Betty and Cat books



What makes a good bilingual book for children?

I get a lot of requests from various companies to partner on my blog, or to have me promote their services or products. I rarely do so, because I rarely find anything worth sharing. But every once and a while I get an email about a service or product that I really like, and I’m happy to talk about. So today I am introducing you to Betty and Cat, who share books but not a language.

Betty (who is a dog), originally speaks Dutch, and Cat (who is a cat!), originally speaks English, are housemates and friends. Betty and Cat have adventures together, each speaking their own language, but understanding each other. The vast majority of children’s books that are identified as bilingual are actually parallel monolingual; they are the same text, translated and put in a dual-language format in the book. While these can be used for some purposes educationally, they don’t represent the reality of bilingual children, who interact with most people in their lives in only one of their languages. The back and forth between the two characters allows bilingual children to use both their languages in reading or listening in an integrated manner, not translating but continuing the story. A side positive note aside from the educational value is that the illustrations are lovely!


Author Hennie Jacobs became bilingual at the age of six years old, when she moved from the Netherlands to Canada, and her journey inspired these delightful books. They have now been interpreted into other language pairs, including English-French, Dutch-French, English-Spanish and Spanish-French. Click on either illustration to visit the website.


Speak•a•boo: The future of accessible speech assessment in a multilingual world (Spotlight on Good Practice Series)


Every once in a while I come across something that warms the cockles of my heart and delights me professionally at the same time. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of living one of those personal/professional moments. Several years ago I met Mirjam Blumenthal, a speech and language pathologist (SLP) from Koninklijke Kentalis, which is an organisation dedicated to diagnosis and therapy for speech and language here in the Netherlands. I don’t have proof, but at 225 years old, I would suspect it is one of the oldest of its type in the world. Mirjam and I met at an EU conference on Early Language Learning (Poliglotti4eu) where we were both speaking about our respective specialisations. I was extremely impressed with her depth of knowledge about and dedication to working with multilingual children in the area of speech and language diagnosis and therapy. I have found over the years that far too few speech and language pathologists have training in working with young bilinguals, and this often leads to inaccurate diagnoses due to misunderstandings about bilingual development. Over the years I’ve referred many, many families to Kentalis, knowing that they will have a safe welcome and get appropriate support, regardless of the home language of their child.

One of the complicated and enduring issues for speech assessment with young children is that the assessment needs to happen not just in the school language, but also in their own language to have any validity. So if the family speaks a language at home that is not represented in the SLP community, getting an accurate assessment of speech development can be next to impossible. In a master stroke of innovation in the field, Kentalis has created a speech assessment app that can be used by an SLP who does not speak the child’s language, with the support of a formal or informal interpreter, possibly a parent/caregiver. There are currently eight languages available in the Speak·a·boo app (Dutch, Turkish, Polish, Somali, Tarifit, Egyptian, Moroccan, & Papiamento). Each speech assessment was developed with the expertise of at least one SLP who speaks the target language, and through community surveys. The assessment consists of 27-36 words (depending on the language) that contain within them the consonants of the language, so each word needs to be carefully chosen and vetted to ensure the speech sounds would be consistent across the greater community (ruling out words with multiple versions and pronunciations). The breadth of the task is enormous, but the end result is nothing short of amazing. The simple, interactive app allows the child to participate in a game-like activity, which elicits the words naturally. The native-speaker support person simply inputs if the child pronounced the word accurately or not. After the test the support person and SLP verify accuracy together by playing back the separately recorded words, and comparing them to the pre-recorded target words. The SLP puts the result on a printed score form and makes a report.   Over my many years of working with bilingual families, one of the most heart-wrenching things I deal with is parents feeling that they have somehow damaged or done a disservice to their child by using their own language with them. This is especially common when a child has speech issues, and parents believe (or are told) that it is because they don’t use the right language with their child. Speak·a·boo does two things. Firstly, it helps families get clear and early answers about their child’s speech development, in their own language (the eight current languages will be added to as staff and funding permit). Secondly, and more importantly, the availability of speech assessment in their own language sends a powerful message to families: that their language has value, and is valued, enough to bring it into the clinical assessment process. The native-speaker is key to the process and is supported by the professional, and this ruptures the often common power-imbalance between majority language medical professionals and immigrant/minority language parents. The dedication that Kentalis has shown in dedicating so much time and energy to developing this approach has provided the rest of the world with a fantastic resource for working more ethically with minority-language speaking children.

Speak·a·boo is available for download on the iTunes store, for iPad (2017).

An article on the Kentalis website can be found by clicking on their logo below.


Top 5 Tips for parents with children starting school in a new language



It’s that time a year again, kids heading off to school all over the world (with the exception of the Antipodeans!). In an increasingly mobile world, many children will be starting at new schools this year, and that may be in a new language. Parents often like to believe that going to school in a new language is easy for kids, that children are adaptable and will learn the new language within months. This may be true for a minority of children, but for most, it’s not as easy or a quick as parents would like to believe. Here are five things that are important to know if your child is starting school in a new language this year.

  1. Children are not sponges – the don’t just soak up new languages effortlessly. It may seem that this is the case because of the naturalistic way in which they acquire a new language (no vocabulary lists and verb conjugations!) but it’s actually a lot of work for a school-aged child to not only learn a new language, but learn school content at the same time.
  2. The more support they get, the more progress they will make. Support from the school, but also at home. Parents need to be ensuring understanding of school content while their children are learning the new language, because they are surely not understanding what their new teacher is telling them about ecosystems in an unfamiliar language!
  3. They need support for a long time. Conversational language skills (BICS) take 1-2 years to master (to the same level as a native-speaker child) but academic language proficiency (CALP) takes from 3-7 years to fully develop. That means that for up to seven years they will not be processing content learning the same way as a fluent speaker, so they will need support to ensure the understanding of conceptual knowledge, especially.
  4. The stronger their home language is, the better they will learn the school language. Research has proven this relationship clearly; children who are strong users of their own language (their dominant language) and continue to grow in this language, especially through literacy, are  better able to learn a new language at school, and ultimately do better academically than peers who stop using their own language. So parents, don’t stop speaking your own language to your children in order to start using the school language – it will do more harm than good!
  5. Be empathetic. Think for a moment about what it would be like to go to work tomorrow in a completely new language – what feelings would you have? All of those feelings; insecurity, fear of failing, nervousness, your children will likely be feeling all of these, at different levels, depending upon their ages. But it will not always be smooth, they will struggle and they won’t perform in the same ways you might expect them to (see point 3) for quite some time. They need your support, and your understanding, and for you to work with their school and teachers to bridge the gaps in their learning. After all, you chose this path for them, so it’s your job to help them be successful!

So if your child is starting school in a new language this year, make sure that you know what to expect and how to help them, and make sure that you have these important discussions with their new teacher and school! (And good luck!).

Top 5 tips for learning about your new students when you can’t talk to them…

Every year, all around the world, teachers welcome into their classrooms students that they can not communicate with at all. While it’s obviously extremely difficult for the students, it’s also hard for the teachers. Every teacher wants to make their new students feel comfortable and happy and ready to learn. And that’s really hard to do when you can’t communicate with them. Over the years I’ve developed systems and resources for schools to use to structure the process of getting to know new students, but schools and teachers can do this themselves as well. Here are my top tips for getting the new school year off to a great start, for all your students (and for you!).

  1. Ensure that your school collects proper data from incoming families. They need to know the dominant culture/s of the family (not to be presumed as the passport country!), as well as an accurate language profile for each new student. This will help teachers in building knowledge about incoming students who are just starting with the school language. This data should also include information about likes/dislikes, both in terms of school subjects but also about hobbies etc.
  2. Do some research on the cultural background of incoming students. Many aspects of the classroom and teacher/student relationship are different from one culture to the next, so having an idea what your new students are expecting and are comfortable with may help you avoid uncomfortable moments. Topics to look for include typical adult-child interaction patterns, classroom practices, and potential sources of cultural conflict (shoes off inside or shoes on?). This website is a veritable treasure trove of useful links to help you: The Best Sites For Learning About The World’s Different Cultures
  3. Build a language development profile based on the dominant language of each new pupil. The best resource I have found for this is Learner English. It’s a linguistic analysis of the major languages/language families and how they compare and contrast to English. It looks at phonetics, grammar, sentence composition, and cognates/false friends, in depth. There is also a great section on direct translations and common errors. Although the chapters are very dense, it’s incredibly worthwhile to learn to use this resource. Teachers who understand the language starting point of their learners can better predict progress and problems, and better explain/demonstrate the differences between students’ dominant languages and English (contrastive awareness). This means that instead of marking everything as an “error” they can point out where there has been transfer, and work directly on those points of conflict. I advise schools to make a working group and assign one language per person, and then build a data base for the whole school, as the idea of tackling all the languages in a class would be daunting for even the most dedicated teacher!
  4. Learn to say hello in the the languages of each of your students. Imagine the impact on a child starting in a brand new school, knowing that they will have to learn a new language, to be greeted with one familiar word by their new teacher. It’s an instant way to let each individual student know that you see them, and they matter to you. That little effort can have a big pay-off in lowering the affective filter and helping them be more open to learning the school language right from the start. If you want to go a step farther, make a bulletin board with greeting in all the languages of your class, and use them with the class every morning, so all the students can learn to greet each other appropriately.
  5. And finally, help all your students get to know each other in non-verbal and non-threatening ways. We are all used to planning first day activities to help the class bond and get to know each other, but all too often (especially in after the early years of primary) these activities are language-based. Be creative, and find language-free ways to break the ice in the classroom, and let the students get to know each other without the filter of language/ability in the school language/accent. It levels the playing field and allows all the students a chance to shine, not only the ones who are strongest in the school language.

So with this I sign off, wishing you all a fantastic start to the 2017-2018 academic year!

(Cross-posted from LinkedIn for readers who aren’t connected to me there).

My Academic year by the numbers

Most of the Western world celebrates “New Year” on January 1st, as does WordPress. In the academic world, however, our rhythms are different. July signals for me the end of the year, and a time for reflecting on the past academic year and the upcoming year. So I’m going to have my own little celebration here, to mark the end of the 2016-2017 academic year, and give me food for thought about my plans and priorities for the 2017-2018 academic year. So here is my year, by the numbers:

42: Number of flights I have taken this year for work purposes, to

14 countries, on

3 continents, to visit

31 schools, for training, meetings, school audits, parent sessions, and give

9 conference and symposium presentations.

45,000 words written for my upcoming co-authored book “Linguistic and Cultural Innovation in Schools: The Language Challenge” – published by Palgrave Macmillan, due to hit the shelves November 2017

27,751 visits to my blog, from

158 countries, to read

18 blog posts

19 “Raising Bilingual Children: 6 building blocks for success” seminars delivered

22 new textbooks/research books purchased and read

3 heroes met and conversed with: Jim Cummins, Fred Genesee, Stephen Krashen (you can read my article about it here)

244 tweets from my first year using Twitter (@4bilingualism)

So that is pretty much my 2016-2017 academic year, summed through the beauty of a list of numbers. Now to ponder which numbers I want to work on for the next academic year – what you do think I should be doing?

Identity language – what’s that? (Spotlight on Good Practice series)

To reject the child’s language in school is to reject the child.

  • Jim Cummins

First language, home language, mother tongue, family language… all these terms are used in international education, to try and talk about the languages students bring into schools. But what is implied by all these terms, and how does that affect the language possibilities of students in international schools? When international schools offer programmes designed to support the other languages their students speak they generally designate the mother tongue of the child as the language to support. They may use any of the terms I listed (and they may even have found another term that I didn’t list!) but the bottom line is usually that they set out to support a language that is spoken in the student’s home – usually linked to their passport country. Families are normally required to declare one language as the dominant language or most important language, to be supported by extra classes.

So what’s wrong with that? I write all the time about the importance of schools supporting home languages, so I should be happy when they do, shouldn’t I? Technically, yes. And technically, I am! But I’ve learned something valuable from the EAL/MT team at the International School of The Hague recently, and I’d like to share it as an example of good practice, and how paying attention to the learners in your schools will make you a better school.

At the beginning of the 2014-2015 academic year, the EAL and Mother Tongue (MT) staff at ISH hosted their annual meeting for parents of bilingual students. This meeting was informational in nature, to present the programmes that ISH offered for language support for learning English, as well as the MT programmes . At the time, ISH was offering after-school MT programmes for some languages, and had a one-hour a week integrated period, where students came together in language groups and worked on accessing classroom learning through their MT. The idea of supporting MT in schools was one that ISH had always firmly believed in, but in practice it was difficult. The after-school programme was run by the school, but was not inherently connected to school learning. The one-hour MT slot in the schedule was unique and working well, but each child could only have one designated mother tongue. In addition, the designation mother tongue didn’t mean that it was the child’s strongest language (and often it isn’t), and so there were varying levels of fluency in groups as well. Nonetheless, they knew they had a better programme than most schools, and were addressing the language development needs of as many students as they could manage.

But at this particular meeting, a parent was to raise an issue that would lead to a year of discussions and ultimately, the creation of a completely unique approach to languages in international schools. The parent in question was American, but had lived in France with his children for many years and therefore they were fluent French speakers. However, by the school’s definition of mother tongue, and indeed  by any traditional MT definition, his children did not qualify for the French MT programme.  It became clear during the meeting, and the “after meeting” with concerned parents, that this was not a one-off issue, and was going to become more common, not less. In an increasingly globalised education sector, trying to categorise children’s language abilities and priorities by their parents’ passports is becoming both limiting and often irrelevant.

ISH formed a working group that included senior management, the EAL managing team (Sue Tee, Mindy McCracken, Nikki Welsh), and the head of MT (Lara Rikers). Together, this group spent a year investigating the profoundly complex issues relating to languages generally, and MT language specifically, guided by the powerful Jim Cummins’ quote:

To reject the child’s language in school is to reject the child.

  • Jim Cummins

At the end of this journey, they had new names for languages in their school: home languages, to replace the insufficient term mother tongue, and identity language, to represent languages that are important to children, but not related to their parents or home. In the renewed programme, students can choose up to three languages from these two definitions per year, rather than the former structure of “mother tongue hour”, which was one language per child, chosen when they entered the school. If students choose more than one language, they can switch each term, or between projects. In this way, each student can potentially have support in maintaining both parental languages, as well as an identity language that they have acquired elsewhere.

In March 2017 McCracken and Rikers presented the ISH approach to languages in international schools at the ECIS ESL/MT (now ECIS MLIE) conference in Copenhagen, with the support of Jim Cummins. Now that the ISH Identity Language has been launched in international education I hope (expect!) more schools to start having critical discussions about the language profiles of their students too.