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Bilingual Education

Claire Lee, Contributing Writer

MYTH - "A child should learn one language properly first; then you can start teaching the other." This is an old myth or belief based on flawed research. Children who learn two languages in a loving, supportive environment learn them both well. Children who learn two languages in a challenging environment may have language development issues, but so will children learning only one langauge in that same sort of environment.

There are many definitions of bilingualism, some of them incorrect and based on myth. A person does not, for example, have to speak both languages with equal fluency to be a bilingual. It is very common for bilinguals, even those who have been bilingual since birth, to be somewhat "dominant" in one language. Bilingualism is really just using two languages on a regular basis.

Many parents find that having a fixed pattern for language in the home makes things easier, both for the children learning the languages and for the adults in their day-to-day life with two (or more) languages. Here are a few of the more common patterns.

  • One Parent, One Language: The parents speak different native languages and each speak their own native language to the children.
  • Minority Language at Home---Also known as the Foreign Home pattern. Everyone speaks the minority (non-community) language at home, and the community language outside. The minority language may be, but does not have to be the native language of both parents.
  • Other Patterns---Any pattern that works for your family is a good pattern. For example there is the---One language is spoken every day, the other on extended vacations to another country; one language is spoken every day, the other on special occasions; the child attends school programs.

Guidelines for Making Bilingualism Work for Your Family

Consistency: Whatever pattern you choose, stick to it. Although children can learn two languages in what seems like chaos, a reasonable amount of consistency will make their job, and yours, simpler. Once children learn the pattern they are often disturbed when a parent breaks it.

Rich Environment: This doesn't mean the children need expensive toys or special tools, but they need songs, bedtime stories, and other linguistic stimulation just as monolingual children do - except that bilingual children need it in both their languages. This will mean an extra demand on your time, both to give them this stimulation and to find the books, recorded music and other objects you want - but it is by no means impossible.

Children's Needs First: Children should not be forced into bilingualism if it really does make them unhappy; above all they should not be asked to "show off", which embarrasses children and makes them all too aware of being "different".

Playing It Down: The more you can make bilingualism seem like a natural and unremarkable part of family life, the more likely it is that the children will grow up to enjoy being bilingual, and the more likely it is that you will succeed in keeping both languages active in your home.

Learning to Read and Write: Bilingual parents often want their children to be able to read and write, not just speak, both languages. Since the children will generally only learn one language in school, the parents have to find ways to teach the other. If the languages use the same alphabet, the child may actually transfer reading and writing skills from one language to the other - though they may need help with phonics (relating sounds to written letters) and spelling! If the languages use different writing systems, parents might consider special evening or weekend classes if they are available, or self-teaching resources from the home country if this is practical.

Family Resistance: Well-meaning relatives may be uncomfortable with the whole idea of bilingualism, and believe it will do the child more harm than good. This is especially true if they can't see any "practical" benefits from knowing those two languages - it won't help the child get a job, for instance. The best answer to this concern is probably gentle education. Point out the benefits you see for the child (being able to speak to certain relatives, for instance), introduce them to bilingual families you know, or encourage them to read books you have found useful.


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