I visit schools all over the world that are filled with language learners. International education is on the rise, and these schools tend to be heavily populated with students who are learning the language of instruction. One thing I am always struck by is how many parents have a very laissez-faire attitude about the language(s) their children speak at home. The drive to have children learn English earlier and earlier, to have a better chance of sounding “like a native speaker” means that sometimes (okay, often) the home languages are neglected. This is a shared responsibility between the parents and the schools, but I’d like to point out these important facts:
- Speaking a language at home does not guarantee continued development at an age-appropriate rate. Children can and do become weaker and weaker in their own languages as they learn English.
- Learning to read/write in the home language is key to long-term bilingual success. And children will struggle to learn to read and write in a language they are not academically comfortable in.
- The continued strength and growth of the home language is the building block for all other language development.
- Children can and do grow up without a strong academic foundation in any language, if attention is not paid to the parallel development of home and school languages.
- Children who lose out on the opportunity to develop literacy skills in their home languages lose out on a lifetime of opportunities to be a fully contributing member of their own communities.
While the opportunity to learn English by going to an international school can be a gift, it should never take away from the learning of other important languages for a child: the languages of their family and community. These are the languages that are connected to your child’s identity, sense of belonging and the doors to future opportunities. English is important, but it isn’t more important, and it’s much easier to learn English later than to try to regain fluency in a language you have allowed to wither. This is especially true for languages that require a separate script from English, and even more so for languages that require character recognition and reproduction. So take the time to consider your child’s real needs – not the ideal of a child who will obviously go to the UK or the US to study, but the whole child, and all their potential choices, which may include just wanting to stay “at home”!