One of the amazing things about living in Singapore is the rich environment for languages and cultures that our children are exposed to. Being bilingual is a goal shared by many children and parents. Most children will learn another language at school; and many families are already speaking more than one language at home. The result is a multilingual learning environment. While this is exciting, it can also cause anxiety for parents who want to support their child at being bilingual. At the end of last year, UWC South East Asia (UWCSEA) invited its parent community to an evening with EOWYN CRISFIELD, a specialist in bilingualism and language learning and teaching. At this event, Eowyn shared insights and tips on how parents can support their children in being bilingual.
Defining what ‘being bilingual’ means
For many, being bilingual means being able to communicate with fluency (or ease) in more than one language. This is a big goal, especially if you’re raising your child away from home. There are added challenges if your family is monolingual (speaks only one language at home) or if your home language is not the one your child is taught in at school.
Eowyn’s first suggestion is to examine what you mean by ‘being bilingual’. She recommends starting with a practical definition of bilingualism: ‘the ability to understand and use two (or more) languages in certain contexts and for certain purposes’ (Carder 2007). Put like that, bilingualism seems far more achievable than a broad aspiration for ‘fluency’ as it helps explain the reason for learning the language.
Being able to make transactions and hold basic conversations is functional bilingualism. Most families whose children attend UWCSEA (and indeed, almost any school in Singapore!) will already be achieving this with minimal need for the family to be more involved than they already are.
Some families are seeking to attain more productive bilingualism. This is the proficiency to express thoughts and ideas using speech and writing in more than one language.
Eowyn recommends setting the goal for your kids using these levels of proficiency as a guide. Maybe being fully fluent isn’t practical or necessary? If children want to commit to learning a language to fluency, they need an obvious reason to do it.
If you are the one wanting them to learn, it might be helpful to reflect on the reasons why you want them to do so. We all learn best when we have a purpose and when there is an achievable goal in sight.
Being bilingual is a team effort
Developing native speaking fluency in a language can be compared to reaching the top of your game in any other endeavour. Think of academics, sport or music. It takes organisation and dedication to undertake deliberate and sustained practice. In addition to that, time is needed to develop an interest, to explore and experiment and to reflect on the newfound skills. It requires everyone to be onboard by identifying the goal and then putting in place practical and achievable steps in achieving it.
What’s a Family Language Plan?
When it comes to learning a second (or additional) language, Eowyn calls this a ‘Family Language Plan’. These plans are not just for those wishing to achieve fluency. Such a plan is useful for anyone who is aspiring to become competent in a second language. The key things to include are:
- Which languages do you want your children to master and why?
- Which level of proficiency are you aiming for in each language?
- Are you open to these goals changing in the future? (What if you move to a new country and they can’t continue their language learning in school?)
- Have you thought about what support you need to draw on to achieve these goals? (Resources could include the school, external tutors, travel and other family members as well as access to books and other media)
- Be realistic about how much time, money and effort you are willing to put towards this goal.
Becoming truly fluent in another language requires a commitment above and beyond extra lessons and practising the language at home. But amazing things can be achieved when children are supported and given ample opportunity to both learn and apply their language skills.
How can parents support children being bilingual outside the classroom?
According to Eowyn, regardless of whether your child is learning a ‘foreign language’ or maintaining a ‘home language’, activities should be based on the needs and age of the child. Support outside the school and the classroom is crucial. This support could look like:
- Talking about language at home to raise interest in language learning
- Encouraging a caregiver to speak to the child in the target language
- Reading or listening to audiobooks in the target language
- Learning the language yourself and practising it with your child
- Arranging playdates and social interaction with other children who speak the target language
- Watching movies and TV shows together in the language, with subtitles on
- Encouraging them to share what they are learning and asking them to take you through their completed language homework
Finally, deliberate practice is better for skill development and learning to use language in an authentic context is most helpful – so, be sure to travel if and when you’re able to! Visiting countries and using the language in daily life rather than just using it in class can make a big difference.
If you’d like to learn more about supporting bilingualism in your children, visit Eowyn’s blog. If you’re interested in taking your research a step further, then Bilingualism in International Schools: A Model for Enriching Language Education by Maurice Carder is a great reference.
UWCSEA has a complex language profile (over 94 languages!) and makes bilingualism a priority. So, it’s an ideal setting for children to explore and develop an appreciation for the benefits of learning another language, or to understand what’s special about keeping their own.
Find out more about UWCSEA and contact the school at uwcsea.edu.sg.