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Language Lessons: English Only in the School Environment?

May, 2017
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Language Lessons: English Only in the School Environment?

Over many years of teaching in the early years environment in China, one issue in regards to language acquisition regularly pops up – whether or not it is better to emphasise the importance of English at their school so their children can just pick up Chinese at home. Well, the answer is that it is important to focus on both languages. Here’s why…

The term ‘mother tongue’ refers to the language that a child learns from birth. The terms ‘mother tongue’, ‘first language’, and ‘native language’ are often intermixed. These terms are all related to the same idea, and refer to the language a child is first exposed to, particularly from birth to nine months. Children growing up in bilingual homes can have more than one mother tongue, provided that two languages were introduced at birth and equally developed through childhood. If your child comes from one of these families you are probably reading books and speaking to them in both languages, which is great, and that’s what you should do. But is it important at school as well?

The answer simply is yes. Teachers, schools and parents marvel at how quickly our young children seem to absorb conversational English in their initial schooling years, and can often let the let mother tongue instruction play second fiddle to the ‘main language of instruction’. Whether your child attends an international or bilingual school in China, the fact remains that they are in a bilingual, even multilingual environment, and the chances are that your child is being taught in both languages every day. A bilingual learning environment needs to be just that – bilingual, with equal emphasis placed on both languages. In China this has particular significance and relevance to most children’s future schooling and school placement given the increasingly competitive school market, where places in Elementary Schools are difficult to come by. In a competitive market, children who are reading, writing, speaking and listening in both languages stand a better chance of being accepted into bilingual schools. It also gives them a competitive edge in finding placement in international schools, and of course these skills are essential in getting into a school where the language of instruction is Mandarin. It is therefore the responsibility of schools to ensure that a child’s Mandarin is up to par, especially if that child is to be going into either a bilingual or local school.

We know that children in the early years are able to absorb and reach quite competent levels in English from attending a bilingual Kindergarten. What is less known is that in the early years (before Grade 2) children are also susceptible to losing the ability to use their mother tongue, even in the home context. It is important that parents speak in their mother tongue to their children, particularly throughout these early years of learning. Being exposed to both languages at school in the early years helps children to make learning connections between the two languages, connections that consolidate learning, and help children become better problem solvers and lateral thinkers. There is now a plethora of research-based evidence to extol the benefits of being bilingual, but the most relevant thing to take away from all of this in regards to China, is that instruction in Chinese is necessary for children to achieve once they have left Kindergarten.

It is also worthy to note that the level of development of a child’s mother tongue is a strong predictor of their second language development. Children who enter Elementary School with a solid foundation in their mother tongue develop stronger literacy abilities in English. When parents and other caregivers create time to spend time with their children and tell stories or discuss issues with them in a way that develops their mother tongue vocabulary and concepts, children come to school well-prepared to learn the school language and succeed educationally. This translates into the school setting as well. Bilingual schools that devote time to instruction in both languages reinforce and support this learning. Children’s knowledge and skills transfer across languages from one language to the other providing for deep learning. From the point of view of children’s development of concepts and thinking skills, two languages are interdependent. Transfer across languages can be two-way: especially when the mother tongue is used at school and at home, the concepts, language, and literacy skills that children are learning in the second language can transfer to the home language. In short, both languages nurture each other when the educational and home environment permits children access to both languages.

When parents ask me how they can support English at home I encourage them to be a partner in their child’s learning and learn with them, especially if they cannot speak English themselves. However,  do keep in mind that trying to keep up with your child’s rate of English acquisition could be quite a challenge. When a child is in an immersive English environment their rate of language acquisition will be astonishing. In a bilingual environment that rate may be slower, but still steady and impressive: it will be also be interconnected with their mother tongue.

The research tells us that the key to literacy engagement for English language learners is connecting what they know in their first language to English. Furthermore, the depth of one’s mother tongue fluency facilitates the learning of a second language in the formal school setting. English language learners will draw on their knowledge of other languages (specifically their mother tongue) as they discover the complexities of the new language they are learning. Current views of second language development emphasize the benefits of interaction between L1 and L2 in cognitive processes, learning connections and problem solving. It is vital that early second language learning needs to be approached thoughtfully. Young children can lose their native language in their early years if not practiced because their native tongue is still developing. This can have lasting negative consequences on academic development, emotional development, and on family dynamics. So it’s important to keep it up at school and at home.

Language Learning Tips

Families can support the development and strengthening of the mother tongue, which will ultimately also enhance additional languages that are learned in many ways. It is a good idea to agree on a family language plan. Decide who in your family will speak which language to your child and stick to. When talking to your child, speak your language articulately, using rich vocabulary, and without the use of "baby talk." Talk about everything!

Speak with your child about what is happening around you; encourage your child to ask questions, and take the time to answer them too. Show your child that other people speak your language too. Enlist the help of family members and friends to support this. Enrich your child’s language exposure with music, books, stories, tapes and computer software in your mother tongue language. You can also create language games according to your child’s development, and make your own collection of rhymes and riddles that can be used over and over again. Praise your child as they make progress and keep it fun. Nothing dulls the desire to achieve more than stress and pressure. Positively nurture and praise your child’s growth and development both at home and school. Support your child at his/her own pace. Focus on the fun involved and avoid stress. Children who begin their schooling in a language they are grounded in will have more success, more self-confidence, and will be able to learn a second language more effectively in the early school years.

By Christian Williams

Christian Williams is the Academic Principal of Montessori Academy and a thought leader in Early Childhood Education. He is a father of two, a husband of one, and a teacher to many. He has been living and teaching in China for 17 years and upholds that peace, integrity and love are the keys to unlocking every child’s potential.


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