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)