Strike While the Iron is Hot!

by Sharon Haag

One of the biggest benefits of growing up overseas, according to many adult TCKs, is the opportunity to learn another language and culture. This skill has opened up many career opportunities or has enhanced their effectiveness and scope of ministry as adults. Quite a few bemoan the fact they did not take full advantage of childhood opportunities in these areas. Experiential exposure to another language and culture is often not sufficient to develop high-level language skills, but parents and teachers can provide a structure that will help children benefit more fully from the exposure they do have.

Many of our children have only limited exposure to the national language and culture. When I taught Spanish to elementary and junior high students in southern Mexico, most of the children had some oral competency, but it was the rural type of speech spoken by the not-very-highly-educated, second-language population that surrounded them. Only those few who attended Mexican schools had any training in reading or writing. Without additional formal language training, the Spanish these TCKs learned would not have been accepted or respected in the business or international community.

I attended a workshop on second-language issues given by Cynthia Storrs, an educational consultant with expatriate families who work in Europe. The information she shared provides excellent guidance for parents who want to help their children benefit from studying another language.

Benefits of Bilingualism

Are bilingual children advantaged or disadvantaged? It depends on the level of bilingualism we’re talking about. Limited Bilinguals are those who are limited in both their mother tongue and in the second language…obviously a disadvantage. The second level includes those who have age-appropriate competency in one language, but not in the second. Balanced Bilinguals are those who have age-appropriate competency in both languages. Balanced bilingualism brings many positive cognitive benefits:

Speaking/Thinking Discrepancy—Be Aware!

A child can sound like a native speaker of his second language yet not be able to function cognitively at the same level. This is a caution for those considering using a second language as the main vehicle for education.

It takes one to two years for a 5- or 6-year-old child to reach the speaking level of a native speaker. But, it takes five to seven years to reach the native speakers’ “cognitive, academic, learning-proficiency level,” or ability to function cognitively like native-speaking peers. The older a child is when he starts learning the second language, the longer it takes to reach those levels of competency.

Mother-Tongue Development

When is it not advisable to use the second language as the primary education language? It is not advisable —

When using a second language for education, it is imperative to also support mother-tongue development—reading, conversation, vocabulary growth, writing—so that thinking skills can continue to develop at age-appropriate levels. Keeping the mother tongue strong is especially important in order to keep the option open for returning to the first-language setting for education or adult life.

After the early schooling years, families who try to teach a parallel curriculum in the mother tongue usually find it becomes more than their children can handle. Most families have been able to encourage mother-tongue and cognitive growth by providing good, quality literature and resource materials that engage their children’s interest.

Some families make it a habit to have discussions in their mother tongue about the content subjects children are learning in school or about current events and life issues. Others engage mother-tongue tutors to work with their children during school breaks, especially with the focus on developing the critical area of writing skills and providing home-country cultural exposure.

Language-Learning Issues

What will make language learning a successful experience? Attitude is the single most important factor for success in learning another language. The influence of attitude outweighs aptitude, intelligence, learning styles, or teaching methods.

Interactions with native speakers and a person’s feelings about those interactions have tremendous impact on how well he or she will learn the language. Positive relationships are extremely important for success. Shy children may have more difficulty and need a lot of one-on-one preparation before they are willing to speak out.

Language learning is especially difficult for teenagers because of their sensitivity to what others think of them. Learning a language in order to integrate with another culture provides motivation far beyond merely learning in order to accomplish a task. Learning the values of the new culture is an integral part of learning the language fully. Children may go through a period of rejecting one culture or the other, but should eventually come to appreciate the good and recognize the bad of both.

Maximum acquisition of a new language occurs when the instructional level is just a small step above comfort level and the learner is in a low-anxiety environment.

Best Time to Start?

Most studies say there is no “critical period” for beginning to learn a second language. However, certain ages are better for certain things: younger children have the advantage of being able to learn without a foreign accent (up to age 12, most can learn to speak like a native); college-level students learn vocabulary more easily; adults understand the grammar.

Second-Language Instruction Components

If the aim is to become truly bilingual, a student should focus on both the oral skills (listening and speaking) as well as the literacy skills (reading and writing). Subskills of the above would be pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, meaning, and style. For effective communication and integration with native speakers, the cultural values and behaviors also need to be understood and practiced where appropriate.


*taken from Cynthia’s list for teachers

Attitudes and opportunities may limit how well a student will learn a second language, but taking advantage of whatever resources are available now can bear good fruit later when resources and/or motivation increase. Hopefully, this month’s newsletter will spark new ideas and enthusiasm for pursuing the language-learning opportunities available to your children. What would be one small step you could take toward giving them the bilingual advantage?

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