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A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the always-contentious fact that earlier is not necessarily better when it comes to acquiring a second (third, fourth, etc.) language. This post aims to help clarify what might be the right time, based on a parent question.

We would like our children to have both our language and English as academic languages. We would like to find a balance between education in our language and in English. How can we best do this?

This is an excellent question, posed by parents who are already thinking about the planning side of language acquisition. Rightfully, they recognise that their own language is important, but also wish for their children to have the opportunity to develop English as well. Is there a way to achieve both goals? The answer is that there are definitely ways to develop both languages academically. The easy solution is to find a bilingual school that does a good job with both languages. Many (most?) parents don’t have that option: they can only choose between first language education or English education.

As you read previously, young children learn language more slowly than older children. They also forget language more quickly, especially if they cannot read and write in the language yet. This would lead to the conclusion that a few years of English early on may not have the long-term effect the parents desire. If you extend the stay in English language schooling until literacy is achieved, then you are sacrificing the best years for learning the home language literacy in schools.

Extensive research on Canadian immersion programmes has shown clearly that children who begin immersion in late primary school or the beginning of secondary school have relatively the same language outcomes as children who start at the beginning of primary.  We also know that children have more successful experiences in education if their early years, at least, are in their own languages. If we consider these as major factors in our decision making, it would lead us to this conclusion:

  • Accessing school in the local language for the early years of primary allows for strong development in the home language/first language, including development of literacy
  • Joining an English language school in the later years of primary will still allow for strong development of English, especially as it will be built on the strong foundation of their own language

Parents will still need to provide support for language development along the way. During the early years, while the children are in local language schools, the parents can (if they want to and are able to) start with some social English, either at home through games or reading, or with an English-speaking babysitter. It is not necessary, or even very valuable, to send young children to English “lessons” – just play with them in English and sing songs and read stories.

After the switch to English language education, the parental role will move to helping support continued development in the home language. This can be done by ensuring that the children continue to read every day (and make sure they have access to interesting and age-appropriate books, articles, comics), and by using writing as a means of communication. Writing can be difficult to keep up if the writing system is different than English, but it is very important to not let it go.

A considered approach such as this will work for most children. It is important to recognise that children are not all the same when it comes to language learning, so children who have the same experiences may not end up with the same levels in both languages. It is also important to recognise that their are other factors that are important in decision-making as well. Some children are perfectly fine moving between schools and languages, and take it all in stride. Some children find change of this nature stressful, which doesn’t create a good environment for learning. Language can certainly be one of the factors in choosing education for our children, but it shouldn’t be the only factor.