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!).

Identity language – what’s that? (Spotlight on Good Practice series)

To reject the child’s language in school is to reject the child.

  • Jim Cummins

First language, home language, mother tongue, family language… all these terms are used in international education, to try and talk about the languages students bring into schools. But what is implied by all these terms, and how does that affect the language possibilities of students in international schools? When international schools offer programmes designed to support the other languages their students speak they generally designate the mother tongue of the child as the language to support. They may use any of the terms I listed (and they may even have found another term that I didn’t list!) but the bottom line is usually that they set out to support a language that is spoken in the student’s home – usually linked to their passport country. Families are normally required to declare one language as the dominant language or most important language, to be supported by extra classes.

So what’s wrong with that? I write all the time about the importance of schools supporting home languages, so I should be happy when they do, shouldn’t I? Technically, yes. And technically, I am! But I’ve learned something valuable from the EAL/MT team at the International School of The Hague recently, and I’d like to share it as an example of good practice, and how paying attention to the learners in your schools will make you a better school.

At the beginning of the 2014-2015 academic year, the EAL and Mother Tongue (MT) staff at ISH hosted their annual meeting for parents of bilingual students. This meeting was informational in nature, to present the programmes that ISH offered for language support for learning English, as well as the MT programmes . At the time, ISH was offering after-school MT programmes for some languages, and had a one-hour a week integrated period, where students came together in language groups and worked on accessing classroom learning through their MT. The idea of supporting MT in schools was one that ISH had always firmly believed in, but in practice it was difficult. The after-school programme was run by the school, but was not inherently connected to school learning. The one-hour MT slot in the schedule was unique and working well, but each child could only have one designated mother tongue. In addition, the designation mother tongue didn’t mean that it was the child’s strongest language (and often it isn’t), and so there were varying levels of fluency in groups as well. Nonetheless, they knew they had a better programme than most schools, and were addressing the language development needs of as many students as they could manage.

But at this particular meeting, a parent was to raise an issue that would lead to a year of discussions and ultimately, the creation of a completely unique approach to languages in international schools. The parent in question was American, but had lived in France with his children for many years and therefore they were fluent French speakers. However, by the school’s definition of mother tongue, and indeed  by any traditional MT definition, his children did not qualify for the French MT programme.  It became clear during the meeting, and the “after meeting” with concerned parents, that this was not a one-off issue, and was going to become more common, not less. In an increasingly globalised education sector, trying to categorise children’s language abilities and priorities by their parents’ passports is becoming both limiting and often irrelevant.

ISH formed a working group that included senior management, the EAL managing team (Sue Tee, Mindy McCracken, Nikki Welsh), and the head of MT (Lara Rikers). Together, this group spent a year investigating the profoundly complex issues relating to languages generally, and MT language specifically, guided by the powerful Jim Cummins’ quote:

To reject the child’s language in school is to reject the child.

  • Jim Cummins

At the end of this journey, they had new names for languages in their school: home languages, to replace the insufficient term mother tongue, and identity language, to represent languages that are important to children, but not related to their parents or home. In the renewed programme, students can choose up to three languages from these two definitions per year, rather than the former structure of “mother tongue hour”, which was one language per child, chosen when they entered the school. If students choose more than one language, they can switch each term, or between projects. In this way, each student can potentially have support in maintaining both parental languages, as well as an identity language that they have acquired elsewhere.

In March 2017 McCracken and Rikers presented the ISH approach to languages in international schools at the ECIS ESL/MT (now ECIS MLIE) conference in Copenhagen, with the support of Jim Cummins. Now that the ISH Identity Language has been launched in international education I hope (expect!) more schools to start having critical discussions about the language profiles of their students too.

Raising Bilingual (or multilingual!) Children: 6 building blocks for success (May 18)

Next parent seminar in Amsterdam coming up! If you are raising your children with more than one language (or thinking about it), come along and find out the six building blocks for a successful Family Language Plan. This seminar has been developed over a decade of working with bilingual/multilingual families and packs in theoretical background as well and practical planning. Looking forward to meeting my next group of parents!

Our host is the Jacaranda Tree Montessori, registration through this link: Raising Bilingual Children

Spotlight on good practice: Multilingual Poetry

 

 

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With respect to ELLs, there is undeniable and growing evidence that the home language of ELLs is of considerable benefit to their overall academic success.

  • Fred Genesee (Professor of Psychology Department at McGill University, Montreal and  recipient of the Canadian Psychological Associate Award for Distinguished Contributions to Community or Public Service)

This is the first post in the new “Spotlight on Good Practice” series. The goal of the series is to get teachers and schools talking about critical issues in supporting language learners in their schools. This first profile spotlights Jennifer, a Grade 3 teacher at the European International School Ho Chi Minh City.

I visited the school mid-March to provide three days of professional development for the staff of the school, primary and secondary, and for parents. On the first day we did two intensive sessions, the first was “Bilingualism in Education: Understanding your learners”, and the second was “Languages in the Classroom”. As with most schools I visit, the staff were mainly English-speaking, and their training and experience for working with language learners ranged from very little to fully trained EAL teachers. For staff with little training (and, let’s be honest, for monolingual staff) the content of these first two sessions can be challenging. We debunk quite a few myths about language learners in schools (no, children are not sponges!) and look at the critical relationship between home language development and school language development, and how the former can scaffold the latter.

The second morning, Jennifer arrived in the library to show me a poem a student had brought to her. She does a poem a week activity with her students, but this student had taken the initiative and brought in a poem written in his home language (Taiwanese) and translated into English. Connecting to the content of the previous day’s sessions, she wanted to show me the poem, and discuss her impressions of his work. It was a beautiful example of languages in connection – the Taiwanese writing with English translation at the end. The translation itself showed clearly the influence of his thought patterns and expressions in his own language, which led to an inflected yet clear English poem.

In the meantime, teachers and students can’t wait for these policy debates to be settled before deciding how or whether to draw upon ELLs’ home language. The question arises how can schools and teachers, even those who are monolingual, act on evidence that clearly shows the personal, cognitive, linguistic and educational value of using the linguistic resources that ELLs bring to school.

  • Fred Genesee

Rather than just admiring the student’s work and moving back to her teaching, Jennifer took this poem, and turned it into a whole-class celebration of poetry and languages. The students were all asked to find and bring in a poem in their own languages. They began the process in class, and then continued with their parents at home. The parents were contacted by email about the project, and responded enthusiastically. The children all arrived with their poems the next morning, some translated already, some ready to display. Each student had the opportunity to present their poem to the class, and show their skills in their home language. You can imagine the impact on the students who are less confident in English, to be given place at the front of the class to use the language they are best at, and show their expertise to their peers. It also gave the children the opportunity to see and discuss the wide variety of writing systems used by their peers.

So one small poem, which could have been easily set aside or forgotten, became the basis of a unit that celebrated the diversity of the class, that promoted the importance of home languages, and that connected the strength of home languages to the task of producing a poem in English, therefore functioning as a language-development exercise as well.

Hats off to Jennifer, for being a brilliant and reflective teacher, and to Iain Fish, Head of School, who creates an environment in which teachers are also enquirers, in this case, on the topic of language learners in their school.

Poetry. exhibit

The two quotes from Fred Genesee are from this excellent post: The Home Language: An English Language Learner’s Most Valuable Resource

For more information about the Spotlight on Good Practice series, the introduction can be found here.

If you’d like to share a good practice story, from your class, your child’s class, a colleague’s class, please email me at: eowyn@crisfieldeducationalconsulting.com

Spotlight on Good Practice: New blog series

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In the month of March, I had the privilege of presenting at three international events. The first was the ECIS ESL/MT conference (now the ECIS MLIE group). There I presented on using pedagogical translanguaging to support learning in international education. The second event was the CIS Symposium on Intercultural Learning (Amsterdam), where I presented in the Language as a Pathway to Intercultural Learning strand. My presentation at this event was focused again on translanguaging, this time as a way to bring students’ culture and prior knowledge into the classroom. The final event was the second CIS Symposium, Singapore, where I again presented (for LanguageOne) in the Language strand, with an analysis of models of MT/home language support in international schools, and ways forward for schools who want to engage better on this critical topic.

A recurring point of interest across all three events was the overview of audience members at language-related sessions. On the whole, the audience at these sessions was the “language people” from schools: EAL teachers, language teachers, MT/home language teachers, and mid-level coordinators: EAL coordinators, PYP coordinators, etc. So this leaves the question: Where are the school leaders? Where are the principals and heads of school? They are certainly at these events, but for some reason rarely choose the language-related sessions. This was especially apparent at the CIS Singapore event, which was in a strand-format – all participants stayed in their chosen strand for the two-day event. The strands on global citizenship and developing culturally competent leaders were the two strands where all the leadership-level participants were to be found.

So what’s up with that? Are the language-people not informative enough, funny enough, insightful enough to draw the school leaders? Everyone who attended our strands knows that this is of course not true! What is true, however, is that language is often thought of as a specialist topic in education (international and national). School leadership is often caught up in broader topics that seem to have more importance for the whole than EAL, home languages, other languages. This is a dangerous position to take however, as language is at the heart of everything we do in education; at the centre of identity, culture, communication, and most importantly, learning.

It is hard to argue that we are teaching the whole child when school policy dictates that the students leave their language and culture at the schoolhouse door.

  • J. Cummins et al. (2005)

It is true that language people are not always good at publicity and marketing – we know we have a lot of key information that all teachers, administrators and parents need to know. But we’re not always good at getting our message out there in accessible ways.

In order to do some awareness-raising of the complex and critical issue of languages in schools, I’m starting a new blog series, entitled “Spotlight on good practice“. I’d like to do a regular profile of an activity, teacher, school, leader, program (twice a month), to share what is already happening in our schools that we can be proud of, and hope that this will encourage wider awareness outside the language people of how languages can be used in our schools to either empower or disempower our students, and the resulting effects on culture, character, and learning.

The series will start with examples of good practice from schools I have worked with, but I would be delighted to hear from my readers – parents, teachers, (hopefully) school leaders – about examples of good practice relating to any aspect of languages in schools – EAL/ELL, home languages, host country languages, foreign languages. If you have a story to share, for yourself or for your school or your children’s school, please email me at eowyn@crisfieldeducationalconsulting.com

Looking forward to hearing about all your success stories!

 

 

International Mother Language Day: Why is it important?

On the occasion of this Day, I launch an appeal for the potential of multilingual education to be acknowledged everywhere, in education and administrative systems, in cultural expressions and the media, cyberspace and trade.

Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General

Every year I write a post about this day, but it’s important to remember that “Mother language” isn’t about a day in a year, it’s about a lifetime of language. Like so many of these celebratory days, we take a moment in time to consider an issue that impacts children every day, all year. Here are some facts about why “mother tongue” is important:

  1. A child’s mother tongue/home language is their primary vehicle of cognitive development in the early years. This is why changing language at school-entry is difficult, and often detrimental to, young children. When you take away their strongest language for cognitive processing and put them into a new language, you set them back significantly in terms of what they can understand and learn.
  2. This fact correlates with educational research that demonstrates that children who are schooled in a second language, with no access to their mother tongue/home language tend to do less well in school and have lower rates of school attendance in many parts of the world.
  3. A child’s mother tongue/home language is also an integral part of their character and culture. Not allowing them to use it at school essentially sentences them to who they are within the limits of their second language development, rather than who they are as a whole person.
  4. There is no different in value between languages and dialects. No one language is superior to any other, in grammar, vocabulary or expression. Any language with a written script can be used for education, even if it has not traditionally been used in this way. Languages can be developed to meet educational needs if the will (and the funding) is available. Consider all the words that English has had to invent to keep up with the technological revolution: computer, internet, mouse, googling, blogging, vlogging…
  5. It is possible to design and implement a broad spectrum multilingual curriculum, in which children can access learning in their own languages, while simultaneously developing a new school language for further use. It takes time, effort and leadership (and money…), but it has been done and can be done again. A brief example is the growth of Mother-tongue based, multilingual education (MTB-MLE) in the Philippines, where diverse communities have been making every effort to provide for community languages to be used in the early years of primary education, rather than an abrupt submersion into English and/or Tagalog at school age.

All of these factors also apply to children in international schools, not only to minority language speakers. There is often a mistaken perception that children in international schools who are in language-immersion situations, without the presence of their mother tongue/home language are somehow exempt from the complications that can arise from going to school in a language you are only learning. This, of course, is not true, and even in high-status international schools children benefit from accessing education in their own language, if not as medium of instruction then by way of robust multilingual classroom practices.

We all – parents, educators, administrators, policy makers – need to start paying more attention to our own participation in the dialogue about, and progress towards, a more inclusive education system for all students.

100 Words for a children’s endangered language dictionary is a project I recently supported, let me know if you know of others.

Happy Mother Language Day 2017!

 

Please, speak Cantonese to your children!

Waking up to a beautiful morning in Hong Kong!

This is a post that I wrote several months ago, and I am reposting it because I am once again in Hong Kong (Clearwater Bay School, the International Montessori School and LanguageOne HK) and I know this question will be an important one for many parents attending the Parents as Language Partners seminars. If you know someone facing this decision (for Cantonese or any other language) please share!

Obviously this applies to Cantonese-speaking parents… 🙂 but the underlying principle is the same, no matter what your home language is. I’ve been thinking about this issue since I visited Hong Kong in March, and met with many lovely parents who were all attempting to raise their children to be bilingual. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing, of course. What was wrong – if that is even the right word to choose – was that these parents were choosing *not* to speak Cantonese to their children, in favour of English. Again, what’s wrong with that? The answer is, of course, it depends. But for most of the families I met, what was wrong was that they were favouring an outside language over the language that their children need to be a part of their families, community, culture. They were making this choice for many reasons, but the ones I heard the most were to have a better chance of getting their children into an English-language school, and because English is “better” than Cantonese. In an effort to give their children the best start they could, several of these families explained to me that they had chosen to use only English (a second language for them) with their children from birth, for anywhere from 2-5 years. They had thought that Cantonese would be “easy” to add in after, and were finding that this was not the case.

So what are the issues in choosing to speak a language that is not your “mother tongue” to your children? Again, the answer varies according to circumstances (and I did this myself, so I am not adamantly against using another language with your children). But in the Hong Kong context, what is happening is a deepening divide between “high” and “low” varieties of language, with English and Mandarin in the front seat as the high varieties and Cantonese firmly in the back seat. In some of these cases the most pressing issue is the use of a non-fluent language as a parenting language. The potential issues when parents use a language that they are not fully fluent in as the main language with their children range from issues with bonding to issues of language development. Focusing on the language aspect, children need a robust and varied input to fully develop in a language, and to be exposed to a level of language that promotes on-going vocabulary and structural development as well as increasing cognitive proficiency in the language. The worst case scenario is that the children end up struggling in school because their language level and abilities are not age-appropriate due to lack of the right types of input. So in this sense, the parents choice to use English to help their children in English-language education may very well actually be working against them. Far better to arrive at school with a very well-developed home language and then build English on that strong foundation.

A second, but not secondary, issue is related to culture and identity. Children in Hong Kong also take “Chinese” in school, but rather than studying the Cantonese used all around them, they almost exclusively (in English-language schools at least) study Mandarin, which is a completely different language. So then the children are learning in and studying two foreign languages – but not their own language. In some cases, they may have enough family members speaking Cantonese to them that they can use this language too, but at least some of the families I met were in the situation of having school-aged children who had very little Cantonese. This means that the only language they can use to communicate with their extended family is English, rather than the language of their community and culture. These children are essentially third-culture kids being raised as strangers within their own culture.

So what should parents in Hong Kong, and elsewhere (this problem is not limited to Hong Kong, of course) do to give their children the best chance of being successfully bilingual and acquiring the languages that the children need and the languages that the parents want? My answer is to start at home, doing what you do best and what your children need first – your own language. Choose at least one parent to pass on the home language, and to be active in this process. If the other parent wants to use English, and is fluent enough for this to be a viable choice for a parenting language, then you can do both at home using the one-parent, one-language model. But the community language should not be sacrificed or neglected in the chase for higher status languages – the better you do your job at home with your own language, the better prepared your children will be to add other languages. The bottom line is that Cantonese children should speak Cantonese – for them, it is more important in the early years than any other language. It’s what makes them a part of their family, extended family, culture and identity. Give them this first, and then plan to add in the other languages (within reason!) that you think are important for your children too.