Local Language or Not?

Continuing in the spirit and theme of helping your children fit in with a new culture, I’d like to talk briefly about the benefits of having your children acquire a “temporary” language. These days, more families are moving to other countries/cultures with their children, for a few or several years, and then moving either home or on to the next posting. How should parents decide if a language is “worthwhile” or not?
In my opinion, it is almost always valuable to have your children learn the host-country language, as least to some extent. How much time and effort to put into it depends on the family situation – schooling options, age of children, length of posting and other languages in the family.
Firstly, let’s consider very young children from monolingual families. Any family moving with children who are under school age should consider day care/play school/preschool options in the local language. There are demonstrated benefits to acquiring two languages from a young age (cognitive, linguistic, social), so if you have this opportunity for your children, why pass it up? At most, they will go on to become fluent speakers of the language, and to have improved abilities to learn other languages later in life. At worst, they will have developed their language-learning facility and broadened their phonetic repertoire – even if they don’t maintain the language after leaving the host country. In addition, it sends a powerful message to children about the value of learning other languages – an especially important message in families where both parents speak the same language.
For school-age children, the decision is affected by different factors. I have seen school-aged children “dropped” into local schools, and have great experiences and come out “bilingual” in a few years. However, I’ve also seen school-aged children struggle with the transition to being in an environment where they are not linguistically competent. At this age and stage, much depends on the personality and motivation of the individual child. If the child is willing and able, they can absolutely benefit from a few years of school in another language, and if they become literate in the language they have the means to sustain it after leaving the host country. For other children, the compromise to academic achievement, confidence and social skills is too great, and the sink-or-swim method is not appropriate. A best-case scenario is sometimes a local school that has programs in place for language learners and support for the home language as well. In the (frequent) absence of such a school, an international that teaches in the home language but emphasizes learning of the host country language is sometimes the best option.
For older children – secondary school age – immersion in a local school is generally very difficult. The weight of academic content at the secondary school level leaves very little time for learning language to the level children need to function in academic classes. Therefore, the best choice again is often a school that teachers in the home language, but that also has strong support for learning the local language.
Overall, children of all ages can benefit from learning a language that they may not ultimately maintain throughout their lives. For younger children, the benefits may be more linguistic and cognitive in nature, while for older children the benefits may be more attitudinal, but there is almost always a case to be made for helping your children learn the local language in your travels.

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One thought on “Local Language or Not?

  1. This is such an important topic. I totally agree with you. Obviously it always depends on your situation: how long you’re going to stay, the age of your children, if they go to school, how they cope with the situation etc. I would also add that parents need to be positive on learning the local language, especially if their children go to a local school, but even if not. I often see that when parents don’t want to learn the local language, their children struggle much more.

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