There’s a wealth of information on the Internet about bilingual education and raising bilingual kids. But for parents or teachers navigating their way through an online search, it often feels overwhelming. Facts can get taken out of context, and statistics from research are quoted as set in stone. However, the science of bilingualism is relatively young and ever-evolving. I discussed raising bilingual children in Episode 5 with psychology lecturer Dr Katerina Draper. In Episode 20, I talk to Eowyn Crisfield in more detail about what parents need to know about bilingual education.
Let’s talk about talking!
There are some prevalent myths around bilingual education that I’ve heard time and again whilst teaching Babel Babies, or chatting to other adults about my work. A couple of favourites are that ‘children are sponges’ and ‘the earlier the better’. Eowyn explains why these statements are problematic. The metaphor of children being ‘sponges’ suggests they are inactive absorbers of languages. Babies are actually conducting scientific experiments with language from early on. They actively pursue knowledge about which contexts to use which languages in, and for what purpose.
It is not quite as simple as saying ‘the earlier the better’ either. Yes, early bilingual education can be effective but success can look different for different families and even for children within the same families. Therefore some understanding of the different processes is really helpful for parents navigating the subject. ‘Bilingual first language acquisition’ is where children learn two languages from before the age of two, and ‘sequential language acquisition’ is where they learn first one language, and then add others to their linguistic repertoire after the age of two. These are different approaches and one isn’t necessarily better than another. A lot depends on the situation and context of each individual family.
Family language planning
This is why Eowyn advocates for parents to understand more of the science of bilingualism than they perhaps imagine they need. Surely bilingualism just happens naturally, in the right context? Well yes, if there are multiple languages used regularly in a child’s home and supported in the wider family and community, as is often the case in South Africa or India for example, children can appear to acquire more than one language effortlessly. If, however, parents are raising a child away from the community where their language is dominant (eg, raising a child with Greek whilst living in London), it’s helpful to have a plan of how to make sure the child hears enough Greek to acquire it.
The family language plan involves parents, family members, teachers and the child(ren), and is a dynamic document. It flows with a family’s needs and goals, rather than being set in stone. Eowyn explains why planning ahead can also be really helpful when facing skeptics, such as family members or health professionals who do not understand bilingual education. It turns parents into advocates for their own children’s multilingualism.
How much is enough?
Coming back to the question of ‘how much language is enough input?’ Eowyn analyses a few key statistics that people often quote as fact. Do children need 20% or 30% input in a language to become bilingual? Parents are perhaps seeking certainty, or quantifiable amounts of language that can be charted, when in fact what matters is the quality of the language a child hears at home.
Quality is more important than quantity.Eowyn Crisfield on the question of ‘how much’ language a child needs to hear to become bilingual
It’s a fairly repetitive task being a parent, and we often repeat the same basic language to our children: where are your shoes, have you brushed your teeth, it’s time to go, etc. For successful language acquisition, children need to hear a rich and varied amount of language rather than merely the same things over and over again. When there is more than one language to learn, time is divided between the languages. If we only want them to be able to understand and say those basic everyday things, that’s absolutely fine. The key thing is to measure our expectations, whether that is full literacy and spoken fluency or achieving simpler communicative levels of a language, and to plan accordingly. Higher expectations will require higher levels of quality input.
Starting school and bilingualism
‘Should I stop speaking to my child in the home language when they start school?’ is a question we often hear, and sadly many parents have been told to do this by teachers or health professionals. Even speech and language therapists might offer this advice if they do not understand how bilingualism works. It is particularly common in the UK and US where English is a dominant and ‘high status’ language. Eowyn told me she calls English the ‘Pacman’ of languages because it eats up all the minority languages. We will discuss bilingualism in school in more detail in part two. Here is one of our favourite quotes from bilingual education Professor Jim Cummins to whet your appetite!
We are faced with the bizarre scenario of schools successfully transforming fluent speakers of foreign languages into monolingual English speakers, at the same time as they struggle, largely unsuccessfully, to transform English monolingual students into foreign language speakers.Jim Cummins, (2005). A proposal for action: Strategies for recognising heritage language competence as a learning resource within the mainstream classroom. The Modern Language Journal, 89(4), 585–591.
Cyclical bilingualism, passive bilingualism and semilingualism
Sometimes even the words we use to talk about bilingual education can sound terrifying! It’s no wonder that the topic is shrouded in mystery and parents can feel lost. Eowyn and I talk about some of the terms that we hear more frequently on social media and what they mean. We also discuss which languages parents ‘should’ pass on, and when it’s possibly better to let one language remain passive (so a child understands it but doesn’t answer you using it).
Eowyn Crisfield is an international bilingual educational consultant, senior lecturer on multilingual education at Oxford Brookes University, member of the executive committee for NALDIC (the national subject association for English as an additional language in the UK), and mother of three trilingual children. Her book, Bilingual Families, is being published by Multilingual Matters in early 2021.
Join Eowyn and Cate on the podcast by clicking below, or on iTunes, Spotify and Podbean. Let’s keep the conversation going on Twitter! You can find Eowyn on @4bilingualism and me (Cate) on @langrevolution or @lomo_linguist.