Second language and Home Education

One of the main issues at the moment in many countries is the state of education. In England I hear lots of complaints about the system and the apparent dumbing down of education, but then I hear the same complaints from other parents in Spain. Whether this is true or not, it is clear that for bilingual families education is a big issue in our lives. Sending your kid to school in a certain country means that their whole mind set will be built around that particular educational experience. It will also add another layer of difficulty as the social language will take over the language spoken at home.

I recently read some good advice, or at least it was for me, I am sure other people may differ. Anyway, I read that it is a good idea to teach children to read in the second language before they learn to read in the main language of the country. The reason given is that if they learn to read first in that language by the time they go to school, they will already be reading comfortably books and resources in the second language, which will help them to build up their vocabulary in that language, thus keeping it alive. To me, it makes total sense. However discussing this with another bilingual mum, she confessed that although she had thought about doing that, she decided to wait till her child could read English properly.

I think deciding if your kid reads in English or the second language first has to be a personal decision. However there are some other things to take into account. If the writing system of your language is quite complicated like Chinese for instance, I suppose it does make sense to get them reading in English first, as it takes years to be quite competent in Chinese. However, in my case, I believe learning to read in Spanish first will be an advantage, as Spanish is mainly phonetic and there are only a few exceptions. I do believe that for similar languages it will be a good thing to start reading in the second language. It can become also like a little nice activity for parent and child, something I would share with my daughter. We could read the same stories together.

However, thinking about reading and education also reminds me of school. It’s only so much one can do in a day, and we spend about 8 hours sleeping… of the 16 hours left you have to go to work or school… it just seems such a short time you have with your kid! Then I start panicking when will I be able to teach her to read in Spanish, to learn about her country and about all those men and women who lived through its history!

Maybe I can start teaching her to read early, she won’t officially have to be in school after she’s five. Although most kids start reception at four. Gosh! Why sending her at four when she can start at five. There are so many things to think about. I really want her to have the best of two worlds, and then it’s when I start thinking about home education.

The thought comes to me more as a necessity than a choice. In England school doesn’t really represent a “qualification”. Students don’t sit official exams until they do their GCSEs or A levels. However in most countries school in itself is a qualification, with that I mean that you have to sit exams every year and you only manage to properly finish school if you attain a certain level. If you don’t, you have to resit your exams.

This may sound harsh, but the truth is that if we ever go back to Spain and she decides to get a job or apply for a job as a civil servant she will need the “official” school certificate, that one only gets by passing exams, not by “turning up” to school for a few years. Maybe I’m worrying about nothing, maybe we won’t move, maybe she’ll never want to live in Spain, who knows? However, since here there is no “official qualification” until GCSEs, it does make more sense to me to try to home educate her so she can at least sit the official exams in Spanish.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that she wouldn’t get a good background education in her English heritage and culture. But I feel that we would have accessed to a wider choice of subjects and education working at home and joining different home education groups. Besides, there is the other advantage, if you aren’t in a school you can spend long spells of time abroad. She could spend time in Spain learning there. Which she can’t do if she has to attend a school until the end of July, and have only one month summer holiday.

Anyway, all of this is still too far off. But I’ve always liked planning ahead and now that I’ve got a bit of time I am going to do some reading. Not long ago I was lucky enough to come across two classics in a charity shop, How Children Learn (Penguin Education)
and How Children Fail (Classics in child development)
” by John Holt, so I will start with those. There are also lots of resources and help in local home education networks. When I started researching homeschooling I was surprised to find out how many families were doing it. Some of them were driven to it by circumstances, bullying, illnesses, etc but most people are in it because they made an informed choice. I think for bilingual families it could be a good way to keep their second language alive.

Computers, the new era for bilingualism

Communications have advanced a lot. In the past emigration meant long spells away from home without being able to receive any news from the family for weeks or even months. Nowadays we can travel long distances in less than a day, where in the past it would have taken a few weeks. This means children of immigrant families can go back to their home country often and so keep in touch with their roots.

However, travelling is going to become more difficult, due to rising costs, not just for tickets but for everything else in life. This will mean we won´t have as much money to spend in holidays and plane tickets.

This brings me to computers. More people use computers everywhere, there are lots of companies creating language learning software that promises you “effortless” or almost “effortless” and fun learning. I have worked for a company developing one of these courses. It´s fun and it is great for people who want to learn languages at their own pace. But for me computers mean a new dimension of communication and instant travel, not physically of course.

A couple of weeks ago I visited my mother in Spain. She is almost eighty and not computer literate at all. But she is so eager to see as much of her little English granddaughter as she can. So when I suggested that she asked her neighbour if she could use Skype from her computer, to my great surprise, she didn´t hesitate. It was even more surprising when her neighbour agreed to a weekly Skype session! I put it down to “Cute Power”. It’s the power that babies have over people. Especially Latin people… they can´t get enough of the little ones…

My next little project is getting my family to use Skype for regular communication. I hope this will help my baby to accept her mother’s language as something natural that people use, not just her mum and a few children from Spanish playgroup. Although we talk on the telephone quite often, for me being able to see somebody speaking while hearing them means a great advantage over just hearing the voice. Especially for babies, it makes it easier to establish the relationship between voice and person.

I have a friend who lives in America and uses Skype with her parents regularly. It’s free so she doesn´t have to worry about costs, and they can indulge in granddaughter watching as much as they want, even though they are an ocean apart!

One of the main concerns of bilingual parents is how to break away from the “passive” language, children being able to understand everything but would answer only in the main language of the country where they´re living, and turning it into an active language. Having regular meetings with family and friends using Skype will encourage children to use the second language actively. If grannies, aunties and uncles only speak the second language, children will have to use this language in order to get their message across, even if it’s just to tell them what they want for their birthday.

So, computers can be an amazing thing!