Bringing up children in a multilingual environment can be a gift, so we asked two expats and education experts for their views on multilingualism and mother tongues.
Kids keeping up with their mother tongue
The ability to speak multiple languages is a gift that many envy. Kids growing up abroad are therefore often in a privileged language situation. Here, Iain Fish discusses the role international schools can play in multilingualism and in supporting a child to keep up his or her mother tongue.
What are the advantages for kids of speaking multiple languages?
Research is pretty conclusive about the importance of multilingualism for children’s development, both personal as well as educational. It helps them gain a deeper understanding of language and how to use it effectively. They are able to compare and contrast the ways in which languages organise reality and are said to develop more flexibility in their thinking.
Why is the role of schools important?
Children’s knowledge and skills transfer across languages, and their abilities in their different languages are very much related and interdependent. When the educational environment stimulates children to use their native and other languages, they will nurture each other. When a school promotes a child’s mother tongue, this helps develop not only the mother tongue but also the child’s abilities in the core school language.
Why is mother tongue education so important for kids at international schools?
Many people are not aware how quickly children can lose the ability to communicate in their mother tongue. Multilingual children perform better in school when the school effectively teaches the mother tongue and, where appropriate, develops literacy in that language. Learning their mother tongue as well as learning about their native culture is important in teaching kids about their roots. It provides a sense of belonging, even when far away from home.
What parents can do at home to support their child’s mother tongue:
Make sure the mother tongue is used frequently and consistently, not just in spoken form, but also by reading books in the mother tongue language.
Organise playgroups with other kids that have the same mother tongue, an approachable way for kids to work on their language skills.
Stimulate kids to keep in touch with family in your home country by sending an email or a postcard in their mother tongue.
The internet is an excellent source of publications in your kids’ native language. Watch online TV shows with them or read online articles.
The Impacts of Multilingualism
‘Despite multilingual education dating back to the ancient world, until relatively recently multilingualism was seen by many researchers as an exceptional, even hazardous, phenomenon. Trying to learn through a language other than the language spoken at home (for example, learning science in English rather than Japanese) was cited as the root of difficulties including cognitive overload, semi-lingualism and language confusion. Learning through more than one language was, essentially, bad for you.
This point of view has profound implications for international schools, where a potentially large proportion of the community is learning through a language other than their home language. It’s not unusual for parents to worry that speaking their home language with their children will impede their progress in English or even confuse them so that they end up speaking no first language.
Thankfully, modern educational research now sees multilingualism as an asset. Speakers of multiple languages learn further languages more easily; they show a better understanding of the nature of linguistic structures, and a more analytical approach towards the functions of language. More interestingly, research has suggested that speaking multiple languages can make you better not just at other languages, but also at mathematics, science or history.
Still, learning through a language other than your home language isn’t easy and may not yield instant results. Though many children attain basic competence in a language relatively quickly, the more specific language demanded in an educational setting takes longer to acquire, and most students initially see a drop in their performance as they adjust. Much will depend on personal factors such as motivation, the child’s communicative needs and levels of anxiety; however, in the medium term, the drop is usually compensated for. Over time, a multilingual child usually regains their age-appropriate progress, often times surpassing their monolingual peers.
Should you, then, speak to your child in English at home if it isn’t his or her mother language? No. For a child learning in a second language there is considerable research on the vital importance of maintaining the mother tongue. Skills acquired in the first language can be transferred to the second language; so, if your child has developed good reading skills in French or Korean, she can apply these skills when reading English. Similarly, the skills in planning a persuasive essay, once learned in the first language, can be applied in the second.
Many children in international schools return to their home country at some point. Students who neglect their mother tongue can often suffer from identity loss or feel distant from family members in their home country – strong reasons to make sure they don’t have gaps in their mother tongue.
Educational research has generated more than its fair share of false conclusions – playing Bach to your children doesn’t necessarily make them better at maths. It’s important to recognise that the factors that go together to generate the positive consequences of multilingualism are not yet fully understood; much will depend on the personal factors mentioned above. The choices of the institution (such as its language curricula and teaching methodology) will also have an influence on a learner’s willingness, or reluctance, to transfer resources from one context into another.
What is clear is the importance of the strategic and transferrable skills that multilingualism can bring to children as they face a complex, changing world.’
Frazer Cairns has taught in the UK and Indonesia and, for the past 13 years, for the International School of Geneva, most recently as the head of the Campus des Nations. He is currently studying for his doctorate in education.