It is true that children are highly adaptable and would often surpass their parents’ expectations. But it is also true that children differ immensely in the amount of time and space they need to adjust to, for example, new circumstances, a new country, a new school or a new language. Some are quite quick, others, however, need more time and input to feel safe and to adapt. These processes are governed by a variety of factors, such as age, individual differences, like motivation or anxiety, perception of the world, previous experiences or personality. Therefore, just like in the home language, children would sometimes take longer to start responding in the school/societal language. These passive bilinguals might have developed good to very good listening and/or reading skills, but need more time, motivation and the appropriate support in order to acclimate and produce something in that language. And just like with shifting from receptive to active bilingualism in the home language, the amount and quality of input play a vital role. However, if your child attends school or daycare, they are already receiving rich language input and are exposed to person-to-person interactions in that language. So, what else can we, as parents, do to aid and potentially accelerate this process?
Below are five simple yet powerful strategies that will help you support your child’s language learning process in the school/societal language
- Talk to the school/teacher(s)
Having a heart-to-heart with your child’s home-room teacher(s) is the first step you need to take in order to start building a relationship with them. Collaboration is vital for achieving results! Some things to address would be – the languages your family speaks, the language dynamic and language allocation at home. In addition, inquire about your child’s language behaviour at school, what is needed, how the school supports them, how you could support them at home. Building on this relationship is crucial in order to create an environment that would motivate your child and make them feel safe.
- Do not ‘drop’ the home language. Just the opposite – continue developing it!
The school might ask you to completely stop using your home language with your child, exclusively shifting to the school/societal language. This is often due to the wrong assumption that the use and development of the first language interferes with the learning of the new one. Therefore, the home language is not recognised as a resource but rather is considered a hinderance. However, this could be detrimental to your child’s language development! Cutting out the home language completely would produce an emotional and linguistic shock to your child’s system and can inhibit their cognitive development. It would mean “denying part of the family reality and vitality, denying identity, distinctiveness and individuality”
The fact is that developing good language skills in the home language helps cultivate emotional stability, producing individuals who can manage “the increased cognitive, social, and emotional demand” in the classroom. Good home-languages skills serve as a basis when learning a new language and would help your child feel ‘rooted’. They are a foundation your child can lean on when the world around them feels unsafe.
- Try to organise a study group
If possible, organise a small study group of 2-3 children who share the same home language and are also learning the school language. They could do homework together in the majority language and discuss it in their home language. If possible, have an adult to help them if they happen to struggle with any of the languages. This will enhance their vocabulary in the home language which, in turn, will develop confidence, making it easier for them to function in the school language, potentially motivating them to speak as well.
- Enroll them in after-school activities / organise playdates in the school language
Seek opportunities to make your child more interested in the societal language, beyond the mandatory classroom setting; to be interested in practising because they can do fun things and meet interesting people through it. Opt for activities and/or sports carried out in the school language that your child will enjoy. In addition, set up playdates with neighbour children who only speak the societal language. That will give your child opportunities to be among majority-language speaking children who neither understand nor speak your home language and provide them with additional practice. Your child would want to engage with them, in a setting they enjoy, thus taking steps towards a shift from passive to active bilingualism.
- Talk to you child!
Having conversations with your child about everything in their world – from peers, friends, teachers and environment at school, to interests and aspirations – is crucial and could give you important clues you can use for the development of your language strategy as well as the next steps you can take to support them. Share your own struggles – learning the societal language, or any other foreign language, how it made you feel when you had to talk in that language, why and how you did it anyway. It is important that you show them you are a language learner yourself, someone they could relate to.
As I mentioned in my previous post on passive bilingualism, staying flexible regarding expectations and timelines as well as discussing the ‘Why’ as a family plays an integral part in this process. Indeed, it can be rather stressful and overwhelming if your child is a passive bilingual in the school language. Even more so, if you are trying to balance between pressure from the school and your immediate environment as well as worrying about the best way to approach the situation, while potentially second-guessing yourself. Do not give up hope! The things you can act on right now are: 1) talk to their teacher(s), 2) create opportunities for your child, where they might be motivated to speak the language, 3) keep developing your home language and 3) talk to them – inquire about their fears, hopes and motivation within the classroom and outside of it, thus supporting their metamorphosis from a passive to an active bilingual.
Motivation is one of the driving forces in shifting from passive to active bilingualism – both in the home and in the societal language(s) – as well as in language learning in general. Watch this space for my blog post on the topic!
- Baker, C. (2014) A parents’ and teachers’ guide to bilingualism. 4th edn. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
 Baker, C. (2014) A parents’ and teachers’ guide to bilingualism. 4th edn. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, p. 154.
 Collins, Br. A., Toppelberg, Cl. O., Suárez-Orozco, C., O’Connor, E. and Nieto-Castañon, A. (2011) ‘Cross-sectional associations of Spanish and English competence and well-being in Latino children of immigrants in kindergarten’, International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 208, p.19
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