Top 5 Tips for parents with children starting school in a new language

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It’s that time a year again, kids heading off to school all over the world (with the exception of the Antipodeans!). In an increasingly mobile world, many children will be starting at new schools this year, and that may be in a new language. Parents often like to believe that going to school in a new language is easy for kids, that children are adaptable and will learn the new language within months. This may be true for a minority of children, but for most, it’s not as easy or a quick as parents would like to believe. Here are five things that are important to know if your child is starting school in a new language this year.

  1. Children are not sponges – the don’t just soak up new languages effortlessly. It may seem that this is the case because of the naturalistic way in which they acquire a new language (no vocabulary lists and verb conjugations!) but it’s actually a lot of work for a school-aged child to not only learn a new language, but learn school content at the same time.
  2. The more support they get, the more progress they will make. Support from the school, but also at home. Parents need to be ensuring understanding of school content while their children are learning the new language, because they are surely not understanding what their new teacher is telling them about ecosystems in an unfamiliar language!
  3. They need support for a long time. Conversational language skills (BICS) take 1-2 years to master (to the same level as a native-speaker child) but academic language proficiency (CALP) takes from 3-7 years to fully develop. That means that for up to seven years they will not be processing content learning the same way as a fluent speaker, so they will need support to ensure the understanding of conceptual knowledge, especially.
  4. The stronger their home language is, the better they will learn the school language. Research has proven this relationship clearly; children who are strong users of their own language (their dominant language) and continue to grow in this language, especially through literacy, are  better able to learn a new language at school, and ultimately do better academically than peers who stop using their own language. So parents, don’t stop speaking your own language to your children in order to start using the school language – it will do more harm than good!
  5. Be empathetic. Think for a moment about what it would be like to go to work tomorrow in a completely new language – what feelings would you have? All of those feelings; insecurity, fear of failing, nervousness, your children will likely be feeling all of these, at different levels, depending upon their ages. But it will not always be smooth, they will struggle and they won’t perform in the same ways you might expect them to (see point 3) for quite some time. They need your support, and your understanding, and for you to work with their school and teachers to bridge the gaps in their learning. After all, you chose this path for them, so it’s your job to help them be successful!

So if your child is starting school in a new language this year, make sure that you know what to expect and how to help them, and make sure that you have these important discussions with their new teacher and school! (And good luck!).