Supporting Your Child
in Bilingual Education

Supporting Your Child
in Bilingual Education

GLOBAL VILLAGE 

Supporting Your Child

in Bilingual Education

By Catherine Vanesse

10 April, 2017

In Thailand, speaking French, English and/or Thai is a part of everyday life for many foreigners and locals. Whether they are in mixed couples or are living abroad for a few years, the question of education arises depending on the language. Which language should be spoken at home? At school? When should learning begin?

Nowadays, more than 60% of the worldwide population is bilingual due to increased mobility and widespread migration movements. In Thailand, the entire foreign community is confronted with the polyglot issue. When parents each speak a different language, they often want to pass both of them on to their children. And if both parents speak the same language, the question then arises of knowing the language of the host country or even a more universal language such as English or Chinese.

Although the benefits of a bilingual education may seem obvious when living abroad, several studies have highlighted other advantages: bilingual children tend to more easily sort through various sounds in a noisy setting, they tend to be more flexible and have greater facilities in adapting to their environment, they may be more gifted in problem-solving, and of course, acquiring a second language at an early age may facilitate learning other languages later on.

But in order to best support bilingual education, it is important to set up a strategy starting at birth in order to define the place of both languages in the child’s life. This strategy is the starting point for a family initiative and should be applied to every moment in life, daily and spontaneously. You must also know the difference between true bilingual education and just knowing another language. For example, watching a movie from time to time in a foreign language will not make your child bilingual. Bilingualism is learned over the long term and with constancy.

Early Learning 

Children are born with the ability to perceive and reproduce every phoneme. Only when they grow up do they focus on the sounds specific to their native language, gradually taking the form of “selective deafness.” According to specialists, this deafness forms at around the age of 10 or 11.

Early bilingualism does not just entail adding two languages into the child’s brain, but rather by building up language abilities in two parts. Young children’s brains are flexible, so they can learn one or several languages just as easily. However, experts advise opting for a clear separation of the two languages in order to facilitate their acquisition.

Christophe Galian, the founder of the bilingual Acacia schools in Bangkok, echoes this sentiment. “I think that up to the age of five, the period where languages are set in children’s minds, it is preferable that each of the parents talks in their own language.” Indeed, by speaking with your child in your native language, the father or mother will pass on more than a language; through tongue, parents are helping to maintain a link with the family and culture of their home country.

So, what’s the right attitude to take in the case of trilingualism, when children are confronted with the language of the father, the one of the mother, and another language used between the couple? “In this case, which is quite common with mixed-nationality couples, I recommend staying with the idea of ‘one parent, one language’ and speaking with the child in the language of the parent at that moment, and then to repeat yourself in the couple’s mutual language,” says Christophe.

Patience of the long-term 

During a conference on bilingualism organized at the Foreign Correspondent Club of Thailand (FCCT), parents reported that their children were directly immersed into a trilingual world and they didn’t need to take this extra step of repeating things in the third language.

In fact, up to the age of two, children aren’t aware that they’re speaking two languages. For them, there’s dad’s language and mom’s language, but this results in the fact that between the ages of two and three, they will speak a blend of the two. “The important thing is that the children speak the language you have chosen for them, for example, in French when speaking to their father, and in Thai when speaking with their mother. If the child should use a few words in Thai in a French sentence, as a parent, it’s better to pretend like you didn’t understand the sentence and to ask your child to repeat it,” adds Christophe Galian. So, here the keywords are “patience” and “constancy.”

Despite this additional activity, bilingual children (or children speaking several languages) don’t take twice as long to learn the language. Their first words will appear just like with monolingual children, between 12 and 18 months. The development of bilingual children should be relatively identical to that of monolingual children, and although you might get the impressing that a bilingual child will have a smaller range of vocabulary than a monolingual one, Dr. Franck Scola, the author of Understanding and Supporting a Bilingual Childhood, reminds us that multilingual children know as many words as bilingual children, but which are split (in the beginning) between the languages. This “delay” is generally overcome at around the age of 5 or 6.

Whether the child goes through phases mixing languages, by periods where they’ll reject one or the other tongue, restructuring sentences to match the syntax of the other language, parents shouldn’t be concerned. These few setbacks compared with the norm are only temporary, and are compensated by the advantages of speaking several languages, explains Franck Scola. He adds that you should rather follow your young child’s overall development, and he invites parents to pay close attention to reports on speech skills, and especially to closely monitor their children’s well-being and growth.

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