As teachers working in international schools, we are most likely teaching and working with bilingual children (or even, more likely, multilingual children). Many international school educators also find themselves starting a family; with potentially bilingual children. We all know colleagues that have ended up finding a partner from the host country while living there, getting married to them, and then starting a family. None of us are truly prepared to raise a multilingual family and for sure there are many questions and concerns that we have.
What is the best way then to teach and/or raise bilingual children? What does the research say are the truths about growing up bilingual and how bilinguals acquire both languages?
On the Multilingual Living website, they have highlighted the 12 myths and misconceptions about bilingual children.
Myth #8: If a bilingual child experiences any language problems in one or both languages, dropping one of the languages will fix the situation.
Reality: There is no evidence that this is so. Children who have problems with two languages generally also have them with one.
This myth is a hard sell for teachers, and especially for teachers at an international school. We feel so strongly sometimes about how important a child needs to learn in the primary language of instruction that we forget sometimes the importance of learning in a second language (which could also be their mother tongue language or their third+ language).
Many international schools offer more than one language of instruction. If you are at an IB international school, then you must have more than one language of instruction. This issue then is how to teach two (or more) languages to the same student. Is your international school striving to create ’emergent bilinguals’ or just striving to have the students become English proficient? We know it is good to have students grow up learning multiple languages, but how do we instruct that child to acquire those languages most effectively? International school administration and staff should be discussing possible answers to this question more often!
Being that acquiring a second language is almost always a bit different for every child, it is hard to tell sometimes what is really the best way instruct that child in a second language. You could also say the same thing when talking about learning in your first language as well; all children learn their first language differently (e.g. different ways, different speed, different learning styles, etc.) too.
Almost all international schools offer classes to instruct their student population in the host country language. The expectation usually is that all students at that school will have the opportunity to learn (and to become proficient) in that host country language and to have the right to attend those classes. Many times though, there are other options for learning during that host country language time for certain students. For example, students that are new-to-the-English language (if the primary language of the international school is English) or struggling readers and writers in English often don’t attend the host country language classes, instead they go to extra English classes or reading and writing intervention classes to help them get ‘caught up’ faster.
Let’s take a look at the new-to-the-English language students. Many teachers believe that learning in this new language (a 2nd, 3rd, etc…) will create problems for the child and that they will get confused. Being that you can’t very well tell if those 3-5 extra classes in English will be in direct correlation to an accelerated growth in their English proficiency, it is hard to justify taking them out of the host country language classes. Additionally, most would agree these new-to-the-English language students don’t actually have language learning problems either. If we take those 3-5 lessons of extra-English support and put them during lessons in context of their regular English classes with their mainstream teacher, that just might be a better way to utilize that support. In addition, those students will then get the opportunity to learn in the host country language as well.
Many times at international schools students don’t go to learn in the second language because of them having language problems in the first language. Teachers typically justify that by limiting the child’s experiences to learning in just one language that it will be of benefit to him/her in the other language…thus making things less complicated and confusing. If we agree though that the solution of dropping one language to help solve the learning problems of the child is a myth, then I wonder how that would change the language learning structure at international schools. We might then come to an agreement that all students, disregarding any language learning problems, should have access to attend classes in a second language or at least the opportunity to become proficient in another language.
Teachers are always looking for the best educational solutions for their students. When it comes to the language acquisition though, there are many myths out there that are still going strong. It might be important to keep in mind that just because you have structured the struggling student’s timetable to only involve learning in one language that doesn’t mean you will have solved this student’s language learning problem. A better strategy might be to find more effective ways of instructing the child in question, and use that strategy disregarding which language that student is learning through/in.
So, what do you think about the topic of bilingual children dropping one of their languages to help fix a language learning problem? Please share your comments. Are you working at an international school right now where this topic is of current interest and attention?