Expat Life

Bilingualism and homework (part 1)

I recently discussed this topic with linguists and parents who are raising their children bilingually and I noticed that people generally tend to jump onto general conclusions way too quickly.

Parents who send their children to a local school or an international school where lessons are held in another language often struggle when it comes to doing homework.

The question I often hear from parents and that induces me to write this post is: “Do I need to do homework with my child in his/her mothertongue or is it enough if she/he does the homework in the school language?”

There is not an overall answer, because there are different appraisal factors to consider.

First of all, if using the mother language (or home language) helps to understand the topic of the homework, it would surely be important to switch to it.

Especially if we want to foster literacy it is important to discuss the topic of a text or book in the home language so that the child really gets the meaning of the text in the school language.

Parents often assume that their children fully understand a text because they are able to “perfectly” read it phonetically. But do they really understand the meaning of all the words?

At the beginning, many parents think that their children are “fluent in a few weeks”, but fact is that children first of all learn the phonetics. They simply repeat the sound chains. So, for example, they would be able to say “Good morning”, “Thank you”, “May I have… please” very quickly. But only when they use a broader spectrum of sentences with similar words they will be able to understand that for example, “good” can be combined with “morning” , “evening”, “job”, “girl”, “boy” etc. Very slowly they will divide those sound chains into actual words and morphemes.

Many parents stop helping their children acquire new words once they start reading, thinking that it will all happen by itself. But it doesn’t. Children (and adults) who learn a new language are constantly working on their vocabulary, learning new words and learning that the same term can be used in different contexts, that its meaning can change. It is by using this new vocabulary regularly that it will be used with more confidence and that our children become more competent in the language.

It takes children from 5 to 9/10 years to catch up on monolingual peers language-wise.

Therefore, when we send our children to a school where they’ll be immersed into another language the whole day, we’ll need to support them process what they’ve learned at home by using our family languages.

When our children come home with a book to read aloud, our task is to question them about the text. Asking them to paraphrase the text is a great way to understand whether they understand the plot or not, engaging in a real conversation, taking turns, and asking more will help them to better learn.

We can ask them to find other words, synonyms for words that may be more difficult. –Obviously, in order to do this we should have a great proficiency in the school language too! – But what if this is not the case?

Many parents struggle with this and I know that some take extra language lessons in order to be able to help their children at school.

But if one doesn’t have the time to do so, or finds it really hard to catch up with the language, my advice is to try to find other words in the family language and if the child asks for more synonyms in the school language, don’t hesitate to use the dictionary.

I know many parents who improved their languages by learning alongside their children. I am one of them. I learned Dutch alongside my children and am fluent now in my speech and writing, and I am improving my Spanish skills thanks to my children who are learning it now, so, there is no time limit or excuse to learn or improve a language…

What seems very logical and relatively easy for fostering literacy in some subjects, it becomes more complex for other disciplines. (see part 2 soon)


9 replies »

  1. After 9 years in France, my children still prefer when we do their French homework in English or Spanish! But they do allow me to switch to French occasionally especially as the subject matters become more advanced and complex! But there is a lot of switching back and forth for precise vocabulary and clarity! !

    • Thank you, Maria, for taking the time to read this post (I know you’re very busy right now…). The switching is even very necessary to consolidate what our children are learning and processing. There is, indeed, a great difference depending on the subject. When it comes to more complex reasonings, I notice that the vocabulary is very specific and clear in the school language, but nevertheless, my questioning it all in German makes my children reflect on what they’ve learned. – It’s, again, one of the benefits of raising bilingual children: the topics will be processed in two (or more!) languages and therefore (hopefully!) be memorized (and understood) better.

      • I am in the waiting room at the kiné with my girls 😉 excellent point Ute! I hadn’t ever considered the benefits of doing homework in such an unconventional, often clumsy way! I think I will keep at it!

  2. My children grow up in South Africa. Their home language is German since I grew up in Germany. Their father speaks Afrikaans, and together we speak a lot of English at home and elsewhere. My oldest started attending an Afrikaans school this year. When a parent is not from the same cultural background as is dominant in the school, homework has more than just a lingual aspect to it. There is a whole different mindset behind how a task has to be done! Mom and Dad have to do their best to learn that as well. In Germany, its all about critical thinking and creativity whereas in a South African school neatness is what counts and thinking outside the box is frowned upon. I better help my child to cope with what is actually required when I have a lot of conversations with the teacher and make an effort to understand the culture!

    • Yes, Bridge, I really agree. When it comes to homework, language is only one aspect internationally living families have to face. Considering all those other aspects makes the choice about schools abroad very difficult. What you say about “thinking out of the box” is something that is strongly related to how well (or not) other languages are accepted in a school. The more they want you to “stay in the box”, the less flexible they are with accepting for example that children talk their family languages at school too… Also, they probably don’t have a support for ESL (English as Second Language) and therefore, parents need to work much more with their children if they want to maintain the family language(s). – I’ll write other posts about bilingualism and homeworks like maths or science, and I have another one in the pipeline about different methods to learn maths.
      Vielen Dank für deinen Kommentar, und alles Gute für deinen Sohn (?). Ich würde gern mehr erfahren, wie es euch bei der Schule in Südafrika ergeht. Liebe Grüße, Ute

  3. I have all this to look forward to but I am convinced my Spanish will improve sharply when I enrol my daughter in the local Spanish school this year. Let’s hope the learning curve isn’t too steep!

    • It really is a great journey, Georgia. And even if the learning curve of your daughter is steep: she will most probably be very proud to “teach” her mum some new things she learned. I wish you both to enjoy this experience! Hasta luego 😉

      • It’ll be a lot steeper for me than her I sense! But it will be a great way for me to learn to speak about all the usual mum stuff in the local language. I’m already learning vocab from the library books she borrows. Like you say, I do already feel an obligation to keep up with her so I can understand what is going on at school when the time comes.

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