Learners in bilingual schools around the world have very different profiles. Some come from families with at least one English-speaking carer, and some from multilingual families in which many languages are juggled. One very interesting group, however, are children that have learnt English as a first language even though it is not spoken in the home, perhaps having spent time in an English-speaking country or in anglophone childcare.
For the caregivers of these children, maintaining the child's first-language command of English can often be a challenge, particularly when they themselves are not necessarily bilingual. This article will offer some advice on supporting these children and ensuring their bilingualism continues to develop over time rather than stagnating or even regressing.
English in everyday life
If there were one secret to creating a bilingual child, it would be early exposure. Research shows that children who are immersed in English in the first couple of years of their lives can acquire the language as their mother tongue, imbibing the pronunciation codes and automaticity that characterises native speakers. However, early exposure is not enough on its own and children need to have continuous, ongoing contact with the language throughout their childhood and into adult life. This stands to reason, if we consider that the French we speak as a five-year-old is radically different to the French we speak as a ten-year-old and so on.
The most important thing a family can do to maintain a child’s bilingualism is therefore creating opportunities for the child to use English in their everyday lives. This need not necessarily involve expensive childcare or long holidays in English-speaking countries. It could be as simple as designating a space in the house, like their bedroom, or a moment in the day, maybe bath-time, where the language spoken is English. By putting in place these routines, English becomes a natural part of the day, and the child practises and develops their skills just as they do in French. It is also important to note that the quality of your own English is not all that important – it is all about the ritualisation of the child’s language use.
Pushing the boundaries
We all suppose that a truly bilingual individual can switch seamlessly from one language to another in any situation, but this is far from the truth. Research has shown that there is no such thing as a “perfect bilingual” and that proficiency varies depending on the situation in which we find ourselves.
If a teenager learns to drive in French, they will not instinctively have the vocabulary to discuss their driving lessons in English. It is therefore important to give a child access to as wide a range of experiences in English as possible. Joining theatre groups, sports clubs or youth organisations is a great way of achieving this, but so is watching television or listening to the radio in English. The wider the range of contexts a child experiences, the richer their English will be.
If exposure is the key to bilingualism, pressure is undoubtedly its enemy. It is extremely important that families accept the differences between their child’s level and use in each language and do not overload them with unrealistic expectations. Positive reinforcement, praise, rewards and fun are therefore the best ways to nurture their language skills and help them develop an affective link with English.
Embracing bicultural identities
Lyrics are nothing without music and, likewise, language is nothing without culture. It is therefore a good idea that children are given opportunities to see the language in action, learning to associate their nascent language skills with songs, cartoons, places, foods and stories. By giving the language a background in this way, carers help their children see that the language has a real-life application and will open doors to the world. Enhancing the language’s status in this way is particularly important given that multilingualism in France can sometimes single children out as being different in ways that can feel uncomfortable, particularly for teenagers. Rooting the language in the real world can help learners’ bilingualism to weather these stormy moments.
In a nutshell …
Being bilingual can be a huge bonus in our society, but it requires hard work both on the part of the child and their families. Supporting the bilingualism of children growing up in monolingual families is therefore a question of hunting out opportunities to use the language as much as possible and in a wide range of circumstances. It is also a matter of carefully branding the child’s bilingualism, encouraging them to see the fun in the language as well as its usefulness. Above all, it is important that children learn to love each of their languages as a part of themselves, and nurturing this affection should therefore be the absolute priority for their families.