The beginning of the school year always buzzes with excitement but if your child is about to start school in a new language, they are likely to be facing a different reality. The flood of emotions is overwhelming – not only are they about to encounter a new environment, a new school, new teachers and classmates but all that – in a new language. And they need to master this language in order to fit in socially and perform academically. However, a lot of parents still tend to underestimate the process and believe that a new language is not much of a hurdle. Since children are so adaptable, parents sometimes expect they would become ‘perfect’ in it in a matter of months. Indeed, for a handful of students acquiring the new language to a level that allows them to communicate freely might be a breeze, but, odds are, the most students would have a challenging time and struggle, which might impede their well-being, integration and school performance.

Below are five simple yet powerful strategies to help you support your child in making sense of and navigating a new school environment in a foreign language. 

  1. Talk to the teacher(s) / school

Talk to your child’s teacher(s) as soon as possible and don’t wait for them to come to you, concerned that your child is struggling or underperforming. Elaborate on your family situation – the languages spoken at home as well as their allocation and dynamic. Talk about your child’s personality, expectations, interests and their overall disposition to the new environment, so the teachers can tap into this knowledge in their everyday interactions with your child to motivate and keep them interested. Going to school in a new language is bound to be challenging and it is crucial to build a collaborative relationship with the school and teacher(s). Remind them that your child will probably not perform like their peers for quite some time.

If they are interested, even teach them a couple of words in your language to build trust and a bit of understanding.

2. Discuss the school topics in your home language

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Regardless of what some ‘well-informed’ people might advise you, do not abandon your home language because it might be ‘confusing’ for your child or in the hope that it will ‘free mental space’. It would be like pulling the rug out from under them, thus robbing them of a strong source of security. In fact, strong levels of the home language will not only support second language acquisition, but also promote academic performance. Therefore, ask the teacher(s) what topics they are to tackle at school and work on them in your home language whenever possible. This way your child will get a chance to have a head start – familiarising themselves with the material and understanding it in a language they know first, gaining confidence and having an easier time keeping up and learning the new vocabulary in class.

3. Remember that children are not ‘sponges’

One of the biggest myths about bilingual children is that they are little ‘sponges’ and can somehow magically absorb and acquire a new language, simply because they are children. Language acquisition is a complex process, governed by a multitude of factors, especially personal factors, such as anxiety, motivation, aptitude, personality, age or structure of home language(s). Therefore, assuming that your child will simply absorb the new language is inaccurate and misleading. It might set false expectations and be exceedingly counterproductive and damaging to school performance. A new school language is not just a minor stepping stone – it is fundamental to mastering the school content and fitting in socially.

4. Expose your child to the new language beforehand if possible

If your child is not immediately starting school in the new language and you’ve got a little time before it happens, you might want to expose them to meaningful input in that language beforehand. Some ways to approach this are, for example,  

  • have your child watch some of their favourite programmes in the target language with subtitles in your home language, or
  • use child-friendly language-learning software, app or game.

Consider potentially also having a go at the new language together. It will show your child that you are also a language learner and struggle just as much as they do. The additional family bonding time is a bonus!

5. Talk to your child

This is by far the most important strategy there is. Have honest and open conversations with your child, making sure you include them in the family discussions and the process as early as possible. Explain to them why taking this step is so significant for the family, what it entails, what kinds of adjustments everyone will need to make and what will change. Share that it will not be easy to start school in a new language, but you will be there to support them throughout the way. Talk about the fact that their performance will most probably change as well. Listen to what they have to say and try to put yourself in their shoes. It is vital to adjust your approach depending on your child’s age. The older they are, the more difficult it might be to steer their choices and opinions, but they will (eventually) appreciate your willingness to listen actively, hold space and keep an open dialogue – at any age.

So, don’t expect miracles because language acquisition and great school performance are not going to happen overnight. Keep in mind that, since you have decided that your child will attend school in a new language, you are in it for the long haul and need to be willing to support them on their journey. In fact, academic-level language skills are different from the ones needed for social interactions and take much longer to develop. 

Keep watching this space as I will be exploring these differences in the near future. Interested in how the home language(s) influence(s) the acquisition of new languages and academic performance as well? Stay tuned!

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