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!).

Please, speak Cantonese to your children!

Obviously this applies to Cantonese-speaking parents… ūüôā 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.

 

 

Learning from the past?

Aboriginal people have a right to language. Unless we do something in this generation the languages will die in the next generation — the generation of my daughter.

—¬†Lorena¬†Fontaine,¬†PhD student¬†at the¬†University of Manitoba

As a Canadian living abroad, I tend to focus on all the good things about our history and have an admittedly Pollyanna view of my passport country, including about educational issues. Yesterday, while commuting to work, I came up against a less savoury side of Canadian educational history. Listening to a CBC Ideas podcast,¬†Undoing Linguicide,¬†brought me face to face with the stories of the First Nations children who were taken away from their parents, over a period of more than a century, and sent to residential schools whose mandate was to eliminate the “indian” cultures and languages. Not only was this a barbaric idea, but the practices were barbaric as well, with schools functioning with rules that systematically separated siblings and punished heavily for the use of aboriginal languages. Lorena Fontaine, the lawyer/researcher featured in the program, is attempting to prove a case that the indigenous communities in Canada have a right to the survival of their languages, and to governmental support to reestablish what has been almost lost due to the residential school system. The history is complex and the podcast well worth listening to, as I can’t do their whole story justice. And of course, it’s a story that has been repeated in many places and times around the world, to many groups of indigenous peoples, it happened in France with the suppression of regional languages, and in Wales with the “Welsh Not” for children who dared to speak Welsh in schools, and many more.

In an era where hindsight has shown us that these practices were not acceptable and in an era of truth and reconciliation commissions and efforts to revive many endangered minority languages, it would seem that we have learned our lesson. Sadly, this is not entirely the case. Linguistic suppression does still happen, and although its guises are generally more subtle, it still is the same thing – prioritising one language as the “right” language, and other languages as “wrong”. It happens in schools where children and parents are told that their languages, their mother tongues, their home languages, are not acceptable. It happens in post-colonial Africa, where children are not allowed tuition in their own languages but instead forced to learn through a colonial language that they do not know. It happens in Suriname, where children need to go to school in Dutch – a language that they do not speak, they do not need, and is not a part of their world, but is considered to be a better vehicle for education than their own languages. It happens in international schools where children are told that they can play in their own languages, but must only use the school language in the classroom.

The agenda may not be as overt, and the punishments may no longer be physical, but for minority language speaking children, the results are the same. Minority languages, immigrant languages, refugee languages, hold no power in schools and children know this. And they abandon, by choice or by force, the language that they need to develop cognitively, to learn with, to connect with their families, their culture, their history.

So apparently, the lessons of history are far more easily forgotten than learned.

 

 

Supporting multilingualism in schools: Spotlight on best practice

I’ve been very absent from my blog for the last year, and have been thinking about a good post to start the new year. I have a back-log of ideas in my brain and none was “the one”. Then I saw this video on FB (thanks to Ellen-Rose Kambel from the Rutu Foundation) and found “the one”.

One of the reasons my posting lagged last year was that I have been working more with schools, and less with families. When I started this blog I intended it to be for families raising bilingual/multilingual children. But as I spend more time doing research/training with schools, my focus has changed. So this year, my blog will often feature information for teachers and schools. I am planning to do a “throwback Thursday” series to bring back some of most popular/useful blog posts for parents as well – I know it can be hard to troll the archives to see if there is anything pertinent to your situation, so hopefully this will help.

In the meantime, I’d like to share this video, from a source called “Teacher Pages” (links below). The clip is filmed in a classroom in India, and shows so many great teaching moments that it’s hard to know where to start. So I’ll start with language. One of the issues I have been focusing on in the last 2 years is the very important issue of languages in the classroom. In many, many schools there are still restrictive regulations about language use, which disallow children from using their mother tongue/first language/home language at school. Sometimes the restrictions are only in the classroom, sometimes they apply to the whole school area. In either case, the schools are doing children a disservice, personally and academically, through these regulations. I’ve written about this before, so I’m going to avoid the temptation to go on a diatribe about all the reasons that these regulations are wrong. I will say that in my experience, these regulations are based on these misconceptions:

  1. If children speak their “other” language at school they won’t learn the school language as quickly.
  2. That the school needs all the children to use only one language or there will be cliques and divisions among the children
  3. That teachers need to understand everything said or written in the classroom in order to be “in control” of the environment and the learning.

I will write a post on each of these misconceptions in the future, but in short, we know from research that none of the above are true. When I do training on this topic, one of the most common worries is how to manage different languages in the classroom. I think the teacher in the clip below illustrates beautifully how multilingual learning enhances a classroom, and also how well children work together within and across their languages. In addition, her understanding of how children learn a new language and how to create an  inclusive classroom environment are fantastic. Congratulations to Ms. Sujata Patil (Principal) and Ms. Nikita Patil on this wonderful best practice video.

Aside from language, I absolutely love the “running board” in the classroom. No technology, brilliant multilingual, interactive teaching. This is a school we can all learn something from, no matter what our school environment is like. (I know that this shows a classroom in which the teacher speaks, apparently, all the languages. I will write on the same topic for teachers in super-diverse schools as well).

Speaking, Reading and Writing in a Multilingual Classroom

TEACHER PAGES

Forum: Why educating English language learners means success for everyone

This welcome attention to English learners, however, will become hollow rhetoric if the federal government does not fund significant professional development for teachers. A majority of teachers today report that they do not feel prepared to work with English learners, and most teachers in fact have limited or no training regarding the unique challenges and opportunities that accompany teaching English learners.

This is an issue that has been a major part of my work for the last years – teachers who have language learners in their classrooms need¬†appropriate and comprehensive training. And these days, that means most teacher need training. While this article focuses on the US, the situation is no different in most parts of the world. In Europe, economic migration is pouring children into local schools that need to learn the language *and* keep their own language to succeed at school. In the UK 1 in 6 primary school children do not speak English at home (check NALDIC for good statistics) and other countries are close behind. Pre-service teacher training programs need to address this as a part of initial teacher training, and schools need to address this by providing substantial training to all in-service teachers and support staff. It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity!

via Forum: Why educating English language learners means success for everyone.

How Long Does It Take ELLs to Develop English Proficiency? – Learning the Language – Education Week

On average, it took the students 3.8 years to reach English proficiency. But over the course of the study, almost 20 percent of students did not score high enough on the state exam to be reclassified.

This is such a big question in education these days; how long does it take learners to become proficient in a new language through schooling? Most often, children are “graduated” from language support (where available) in a year or two. Very few schools can implement the 3-9 years of language support needed to ensure all children reach proficiency in the school language. This small-scale study in the US shows that learners took, on average, 3.8 years to reach proficiency, living in an English-speaking environment. We could extrapolate from this to presume that learners living in environments where the school language is not supported outside school (in international contexts) would need more time and support. How does your school, or your child’s school, measure up?

 

How Long Does It Take ELLs to Develop English Proficiency? – Learning the Language – Education Week.

Report Offers Guiding Principles to Support ELLs With Disabilities – Learning the Language – Education Week

“No proven method exists for identifying an English-learner student who has a learning disability and then placing the student in the most appropriate instructional program,”

This report touches on a crucial area for improving support for language learners in school – how to evaluate and support for potential learning difficulties across a language barrier.

The steps they propose are a good guideline for thoughtful processes and attention to details in a complex field.

via Report Offers Guiding Principles to Support ELLs With Disabilities – Learning the Language – Education Week.

Six Things Principals Can Do To Support Their English Language Learners | Education Northwest

This is a great outline of how administrators and senior leadership are key in setting a school up to provide the best support system for children who do not speak the school language.

For those who don’t want to read the whole article. here are the points:
1. Set a vision for high expectations
2. Make the families feel welcome
3. Ensure that the students receive English language development
4. Provide training for all teachers
5. Monitor content learning and language development (separately!)
6. Provide time (and a system) for classroom teachers to collaborate with language specialists.

These are the key factors that we address in our “Whole School” approach to EAL/ELL – providing all staff with the knowledge to nurture language learners, provide a structure for efficient collaboration across the school, understanding language development separately from content development and most importantly, creating an environment that welcomes learners and their families.

How is you school, or your child’s school, doing?

 

 

Six Things Principals Can Do To Support Their English Language Learners | Education Northwest.

Professor Calls for Bilingual Education Services to Go Beyond English Instruction

This is a great article about bilingual advocate Diane Rodriguez. She is working on improving provisions in US schools for newly arrived immigrant children who do not speak English. Schools often see these learners in a very one-dimensional way – they are “English-language learners”, and therefore the focus is on teaching them English. Her point, which is so important, is that these children as so much more than just “ELL”. They are also fluent speakers of another language, and have cultural knowledge and personalities and interests that they cannot tap into in English. They are also learners of culture, a new way of life, new ways of socialising and a new school and school system.

Good support for these children needs to go beyond focusing on the fact that they need to learn English, and consider all the other things they need to learn, without neglecting what they are bringing with them,

 

Professor Calls for Bilingual Education Services to Go Beyond English Instruction.

Family Language Plan: When and why?

Every family raising bilingual children needs to have, at the very least, one family language plan. Ideally, they should start the planning process at the same time as they start all the other planning for baby preparations – during pregnancy.

A family language plan is a longitudinal plan that follows a child from birth (or later) through to the end of secondary school, to give the parents and child the best chance for success. ¬†The process of creating a family language plan helps parents consider their options, prioritize, and take the necessary steps to reach their goals. ¬†This includes goal-setting, mapping out where the input in each language will come from (in terms of people and time), how literacy will be approached in each language and how challenges will be dealt with. One plan is fine for families who are living permanently in one location. Families who move, or who may move, need to have alternate plans, each one designed for a certain set of circumstances. For example, a family who are living in the Netherlands, and speak German and Chinese, will have an initial plan that is based on the childcare/schooling opportunities available to them if they stay in the Netherlands. If there is a possibility of the family moving to an English-speaking country, they must have an alternate plan which outlines how they will adjust to continue to meet the goals of German/Chinese bilingualism, and how they will deal with Dutch, if it was a part of their plan. If there is a possibility of the family moving to Germany, they will also have an alternate plan that outlines their bilingual strategy for the target languages of German/Chinese, and any others that were part of their original plan, such as Dutch or English. As you can see, the more languages and life possibilities the family are dealing with, the more complex the planning process becomes! Although many families don’t formally write down the whole plan and alternate plans, the process of family language planning helps families understand the key elements for bilingual success, the the process of resourcing a plan, so that they can make changes as their needs and situation change.
The benefits to this type of planning are numerous, and include ensuring quality language input in a variety of situations, and also include elements such as support for literacy and additional languages. By anticipating the language needs of the children across different life circumstances, the parents have a better chance of guiding their children towards full and functional bilingualism.