My introduction to learning languages and bilingualism happened 24 years ago, when we moved to Texas, USA, and our daughter started to learn English. As a Special Education teacher, I knew she would be fine, but as a mother, I was scared, because at the age of 4, with the language of a 10 year old, I was afraid she would be left behind.
Since then, I have been working with inspiring people who specialize in language acquisition and with many children of migrants around the world. I have learned that parents and teachers play an important role in supporting language development. If they understand the challenges and consider the myths around language, they can help kids with healthy language acquisition.
In many English-speaking countries, the number of students who speak languages other than English, increases every year. Understanding the effects of language on family structure, social interaction, self-esteem and academic achievement is essential for parents and teachers.
Although everyone agrees that young children are very quick to pick up a new language, many young children who speak a language other than English at home, and their families, still struggle in their communication. This affects these children’s behaviour and their ability to learn English.
There is a strong link between language acquisition, academic success, social development and emotional intelligence. For students whose English is a secondary language (ESL), this link can either be helpful or harmful. While at school, specialised ESL teachers support English learning, in the early years, this support is limited. Both parents and teachers, especially early childhood teaches need to adopt a new, holistic approach to language learning in order to guarantee successful language integration and to minimise the learning difficulties associated with language. As always with education, the earlier this is done, the better.
The real challenge teachers and parents have is overcoming misconceptions about languages and bilingualism. Understanding the process of acquiring primary and secondary languages and the impact on children’s life is the key to overcoming these challenges. When students receive the right support and their families continue to be important and positive agents of influence, a second primary language becomes an advantage rather than a problem.
Primary vs. Secondary Language
Primary and secondary languages are stored in different places in the brain and develop through a different process. First, second and third primary languages are learned by creating patterns from a load of seemingly random information, while secondary languages are learned by using the primary languages as reference and building a “translation net” to map elements in the secondary language to matching elements in the primary language.
Secondary languages cannot be converted in the brain into primary languages through repetition. Repetition can only help us retrieve the information faster. A person speaking a second language for many years, will be able to do it fast but with a small delay and never as fluent as a person speaking in his first/primary language.
Children learn primary languages better than adults do, but adults, having a strong and stable primary language, are better at learning secondary languages.
Contrary to common belief, the space in the brain for languages is not limited and people can have two or more primary languages regardless of the complexity of their grammar and/or vocabulary. Children don’t have to be proficient in both languages to be considered bilingual. If they respond in one language, it is not a sign they don’t understand the other. It is very common for bilinguals to have one language that is stronger than the other is.
Many bilingual kids go through a “silent” period when introduced to a new primary language. This period takes between a few weeks and a few months. During this time, the number of dendrites in their brain grows significantly and impact positively on their development.
In response to what seems like a delay in speech, many parents stop using one language, because they believe that the delay is produced by overwhelm. However, removing one language to help children develop another language is more damaging than it is helpful. Researchers found that it limited the range of vocabulary, reduced children’s ability to communicate with family and community members, damaged their self-esteem and weakened their cultural attachment.
Much research has been done on bilingual children and researchers agree they don’t have any delays in developing languages. In fact, they are better able to focus their attention and ignore distractions (Cognitive Reserve), more creative, better at planning, more competent at solving complex problems and more analytical. They have higher cultural awareness, better social skills and higher EQ. Bilingual children have cognitive flexibility, make decision faster, perform well in logic, math, music, computer, science and easily learn other languages. Based on this, if we want to raise a whole population of children with exceptional abilities, it is our duty as teachers and parents to support and encourage primary language learning and to invest in bilingualism.
Experts still argue about the critical age for forming primary languages, but they all agree that it ends between the ages of seven and twelve. Yes, it is hard to accept but it is seven to twelve. This means that we do not have to be exposed to a language from birth, but we cannot start any time we choose. After the critical age, we form a secondary language, which supports our cognitive ability, but on a much smaller scale. It is very important to understand that we have a deadline for this process and if we pass it, we do not develop first languages but seconds. This leaves educators to deal with this important channel of education at the most critical age – the early years.
Parents Speaking English as a Secondary Language
Parents who speak a language other than English as a primary language face conflicts between keeping their language and culture and adjusting to the local language and customs. This is a very typical challenge that every migrant family faces after moving to another country.
Many of these parents stop speaking their primary language in hope that it will help their children, but they risk losing their main channel of communication. The loss of their primary language has severe implications on second language learning and makes it harder for the parents themselves to learn English. Parents learning English as a secondary language, must keep the primary one strong and stable so they can keep using the translation net. When the primary one gets weak and they start forgetting the meaning of words in their original/primary language, they have no meaning to connect with the new learning.
Lost in Translation
Parents who do not stick to their primary language communication with their children experience many difficulties and the most challenging one is the emotional challenge. They find it very hard to pass on feelings, ideas, beliefs, morals and values in a secondary language, because feelings and culture develop together with primary language and cannot be separated. The language of the dreams, for example, and the language in which people count are no indication of their primary languages. Which language they choose to express strong emotions is a better indicator. This is why we call the primary language “the language of the heart”. In our primary languages we pass on feelings, values, ideas and beliefs with the whole range of the meaning while in secondary language, some of the meaning is lost in translation.
Parents who do not speak to their children in their primary language report feeling inferior and humiliated in their relationships with their kids and being unable to take an active part in their children’s education. Families report that in a secondary language (English) they communicate at a basic level with their children and are therefore unable to support their education.
Another problem that families face is that children have difficulties communicating with other family members who cannot speak English. Family members who do not speak the children’s language can no longer be resources for them. If this challenge is not addressed in the early years, the gap increases even more when the children reach their teens. The whole advantage of being bilingual is lost forever.
For most parents who speak a language other than English at home, English is a secondary language and their proficiency in it is limited. It is better that these parents speak with their kids in their primary language and encourage their children to do the same. Teaching the children English is best left to educators who are more advanced in English and have a much wider vocabulary and a full range of accent, slang and cultural subtleties to explain and express feelings and ideas. The children can also develop their English naturally by living in an English-speaking environment without any contradictions with their parent’s English.
Bilingual children tend to mix languages for a while. This is reasonable process of learning languages. Many times, they “borrow” one grammatical concept or phrase from one language and use it in the other. This is healthy and does not indicate a problem. However, being taught to speak using mixed languages is problematic. In some cases, parents who mix languages in the same sentence can create a learning difficulty that is harder to “fix”. I have many examples of special education children that their difficulty was born with their parents talking to them in mixed languages. In such cases, kids have problems in both languages.
The Role Educators in the Early Years
Based on the nature of the language learning process and taking into consideration the critical age, the early years are very important. Immersion in early childhood is the most effective and successful way to teach another (primary) language. Early childhood teachers who speak other (primary) languages are the best to help in this.
If full immersion is not possible, here are some tips to help educators support their children who speak English as a second language and their families:
- Remember that having an accent does not mean the child does not speak properly. The accent of the major language contributor is responsible for the child’s accent. Make sure that parents speak to their children in their own language and not in English. Encourage parents and children to express feelings in their primary language and make your appreciation for bilingualism clear.
- Highlight the advantages of multiple languages in your class to instil pride.
- Express interest in family languages and cultures, invite children and parents to share their holidays, songs and games in class and celebrate diverse cultural festivals.
- Connect children and their families with similar primary language speakers to encourage speaking and communicating with a focus on integration in the wider community. Make sure this will not mean they will be highly dependent on such families and create a small isolated world around them.
- If possible, create a family buddy system and never prevent kids from using their primary languages.
- Teach your students to count and say greetings in many different languages and make it a secret code. I did it with children age three and many years after they still remember it.
Bilingualism is a major tool to increase emotional intelligence, social awareness and academic success. We can use the free and available resource of parents who speak a language other than English or waste it. Once we pass the critical age, we can no longer enjoy its benefits. Taking advantage of this free resource will give children the full value of bilingualism, which they cannot get from learning a second language later in primary or secondary school.
Who do you think in our society needs a second primary language?
We all do and we better start with every child before reaching the critical age!
Because it is easy, free, natural and efficient way to increase a whole society of smart, flexible and with high social and emotional intelligence.
Parents and educators are the most important socialising agents for children in the early years. If they adopt this new, holistic approach to language learning, they can easily support children’s language acquisition. This will guarantee the successful and advanced development of young children and support their learning for years to come.
If you speak any language other than English, be proud to speak it with your children. Do this even if they do not like it or do not reply in this language. Insist, because in the future, it will be meaningful to them in many ways they cannot imagine yet. Bilingualism is a great thing for them.
Happy parenting and happy teaching!