What to expect when your child starts in a bilingual school?

By enrolling your child at the Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley, you have started him or her on a path to bilingualism. Both the process of becoming bilingual and the actual state of being bilingual are complex and sometimes misunderstood, so it is important for you, as parents of emerging bilinguals, to have a clear idea where your child is going and how he or she will get there.

It has been estimated that more than half the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual. For many people, living with two or more languages is the norm and only in a few countries, like the US or France, do some people view bilingualism as a rare phenomenon.

Few bilinguals have the same exact knowledge and command of their languages, or no accent in their non-native languages. In fact, as many of you probably can attest, in international communities bilinguals with great fluency often have a strong accent in some of their languages. Bilinguals also know their languages to the level that they need to based on how each language is used. For example, imagine a child who grows up speaking French at home, but whose entire schooling takes place in English. That child would not develop academic vocabulary or the same level of reading and writing in French as in English. François Grosjean,[1] a psycholinguist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Neuchâtel, calls this the complementarity principle. Indeed, only a small minority of people has equal and perfect fluency in their languages.

Becoming bilingual

Bilinguals are as diverse in their linguistic profiles as monolinguals. Bilinguals can acquire their second language in childhood, in adolescence, or in adulthood. There are numerous ways in which bilinguals acquire their second (or third languages): they can do it in their family, because they move to a new country, or in an immersion school. The combinations are numerous. Many individuals — like myself — become bilingual because they move to another country.

It is possible to become bilingual at any age, yet children who acquire their languages in their early years will most often have a native speaker accent and will find themselves in ideal language-learning environments (such as EB). Because the conditions of language immersion are most conducive to learning a second language, EB has developed a program that promotes robust and efficient language acquisition. This model focuses on the oral aspects of the language, vocabulary and literacy skills, cultural components, and the learning of non-linguistic subject matters in both languages. We also focus specifically on a transfer of skills between languages and metalinguistic awareness and abilities.

That said, the learning and development of a language follows a predictable pattern of phases, both in the first or second language. When it comes to children learning two languages at the same time (called simultaneous bilingualism), all languages follow the same basic stages. However, when a new language is added later on (called sequential bilingualism), there may be greater variation in stages of development. Of course, additional factors such as age of acquisition, aptitudes or motivation also influence learning of a second language.

One of the criteria for the success of learning of the second language is how much and how the child is exposed to and uses the second language. We know from research that both the amount and the quality of exposure to the target language are important for language development. Supporting our children’s learning and growing process necessitates the correct and supporting environment and some knowledge about dual language development. That way, we can have appropriate expectations for each child’s progress.

The stages of second language development

The commonly found stages of second language development (sequential bilingualism) can be identified as:

1) Preproduction (starting phase). This stage is also called “the silent period,” when the students listen and watch others; they take in the new language but do not speak it yet. During this period, children often communicate through gestures, actions and small words. Some students go through the silent period that can last six weeks or longer, depending on the child. At EB, many of our preschool students are in this phase.)

2) Early Production (emerging phase). This stage begins with student speaking using short words and sentences and assimilating basic vocabulary. The emphasis is still on listening and absorbing the new language. Students begin to understand that languages have rules and systems, but they are still making many errors. For most of our students, this phase begins in the preschool or Kindergarten.

3) Speech Emergence (developing phase). Students participate in small group discussions and use the new language more frequently and for a purpose (to ask, to refuse, to interrupt). They start accessing key concepts and produce complete sentences. Children still rely heavily on context clues and familiar topics, but their vocabulary continues to increase. Errors begin to decrease, especially in common or repeated interactions. We generally see our first and second graders at this level.

4) Beginning and Intermediate Fluency (expanding phase).

In the Beginning Fluency phase, students engage in conversation and use reading and writing to process new information. They also write answers to higher-level questions. Their speech is becoming fairly fluent in social situations with minimal errors. New contexts and academic language are still challenging at times, as students still have gaps in vocabulary.

In Intermediate Fluency, the communication in the second language is fluent, especially in social language situations and students speak almost fluently in academic areas. There are still a few gaps in vocabulary knowledge, however. The child is able to demonstrate higher order thinking skills in the second language, such as offering an opinion or analyzing a problem. Depending on when the student started school, this phase can be attained during upper primary school (3rd, 4th, and 5th grade).

5) Advanced Fluency (bridging phase). During this phase, students communicate fluently in all contexts and can maneuver successfully in new contexts and when exposed to new academic information. At this stage, the individual may still have an accent and use idiomatic expressions incorrectly at times, but is essentially fluent and comfortable communicating in the second language. Depending on when the student started his / her bilingual education, this phase is most often attained at the end of primary school or at the beginning of Middle School.

Parenting a bilingual child

It is important when reflecting on those stages to consider that students will move through the above stages at different rates and that many factors influence second language acquisition. Young children do not learn a second language faster than older ones, and on the road to bilingualism, language researchers such as Jim Cummins show that you can expect that it will take around seven years to reach a level of academic fluency equal to a monolingual (equivalent to the advanced fluency stage). A bilingual education is therefore a serious project and requires commitment.

You may also see your child appearing to be behind monolinguals during the process of the second language acquisition. For instance, in vocabulary: bilingual students have smaller vocabularies in each language, but when vocabularies from both languages are combined, the total is similar or greater to monolingual children) at some point, but they will catch up later on. We also see this in the development of biliteracy in our students; in first and second grade they often read below grade level expectations for a monolingual school. However, they transfer their understanding of the reading process between French and English and by upper elementary school most are fluent readers in both languages. There will be rough spots, plateaus, and silent periods, but language transfer occurs: students won’t study everything in both languages and what they have learned in one language will benefit the other and their cognitive abilities overall.

Remember that there are many advantages to learning two or more languages. It has an especially positive impact on brain development and on how the brain organizes information and maintains control of our actions. For children developing language in more than one language, these executive function and self-regulation skills processes (i.e. the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully) are enhanced. Below are some of the benefits of growing up bilingual. You can particularly note that bilinguals can[2]:

● Develop improved cognitive control systems at seven months (Kovacs & Mehler, 2009)

● Demonstrate advantages in attention and inhibition (Hernandez, Martinez & Kohnert, 2000)

● Show advantages in tasks that require conflict management and ability to focus on relevant task information (Prior & MacWhinney, 2010)

● Store and use two sets of vocabulary, understand grammar rules in both languages, store two sets of sounds which leads to better metalinguistic awareness (Bialystok, 1993)

● Demonstrate improved school achievement, as better self-control is a key indicator of school success (Kovacs & Mehler, 2009)

● Develop strong thinking skills (Kessler & Quinn, 1980) and increased abilities to focus, remember and make decisions (Bialystok, 2001)

What can you do to help?

Your support, motivation, and encouragement are absolutely essential to a child embarking on a bilingual education path. It is not necessary for parents, however, to speak or understand the additional language your child is learning. One of your most important roles will be in motivating your child. Parents want specifically to show value toward both languages and provide students with opportunities for exposure and use of both languages. Parents will have to be committed to the dual language program and understand that becoming bilingual is a process that takes time.

As with any endeavor, parents who show their children that they are involved with school initiatives, volunteer for school events, or arrange play-dates support their child’s language acquisition. Keeping a constant dialogue with teachers or administrators is also important. Questions will arise during the educational journey of the students and parents. Finally, explaining the reasons why being bilingual is important is essential. Above all, focus on these essential points:

● Be patient and make it fun

● Maintain and build upon your mother tongue

● Be involved in the school and your child’s second language acquisition progress

● Applaud every effort and be a role model

● Do not give mixed messages and do not create anxiety

● Ask us if you have any questions!

[1] You can read Pr. Grosjean’s blog here: www.francoisgrosjean.ch/blog_en.html

[2] The following list was taken from: Supporting All Children Using the Connecticut Early Learning and Development Standards: Dual Language Learners, Connecticut Office of Early Childhood Education, 2016.