Five ways to boost your bilingual learning environment

Creating a great bilingual learning environment for your children can take a little bit of work and creativity but it needn’t be a chore. Here are some ways we used to keep three languages ticking over.

1. Ensure both languages are spoken at home

This may sound painfully obvious but it’s surprising how many bilingual families start conversing in one language. The ‘one parent, one language’ (OPOL) strategy is a good one as it ensures children interact in both language throughout the day.

Join local language groups or start one yourself!

Join local language groups or start one yourself!

2. Connect with others locally

Unless you live in a very remote area chances are there are language exchanges, parent groups, and playgroups in your town and city. Our children go to a Spanish-speaking playgroup most weeks and a French family meet-up too. If you can’t find anything going on locally, why not start something with likeminded individuals by posting notices on social media or local advertising boards? By interacting with others that speak the language outside the immediate family, the language will seem more ‘real’ and alive.

3. Use media media in the other language

Find books, music, radio and films in the other language and make sure they are easily available to enjoy. Our children enjoy watching unique Spanish and French cartoons but on YouTube we can find British favourites like the ubiquitous Peppa Pig dubbed into those languages too.

Video conferencing with friends and family overseas can really help!

Video conferencing with friends and family overseas can really help!

4. Exploit technology to connect with friends and family overseas

Webcams and Skype are a brilliant way to interact with friends and family overseas. Our kids love to talk on Skype with their Aunt and Grandmother and sometimes Spanish-speaking friends in the USA. Skype can be a great tool when there are no speakers of the second language in your locality.

5. Explore Apps and computer software

For better or worse, our children love to use an iPad and, like some tech-skeptical parents, it’s something I’m not too concerned by as I’ve discovered all sorts of beautiful interactive story books and educational games that they really enjoy.

How do you keep language alive at home? Let us know in the comments

Numbers of UK students choosing Modern Foreign Language degrees decline

UK students choosing to take a language degree has fallen to its lowest level in a decade. A report by the the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) found the number of students being accepted onto full-time modern language courses slumped by 22% between the academic years 2010-11 and 2012-13.

While there was a strong 8% recovery in the numbers of students entering full-time undergraduate courses in 2013-14, full-time undergraduate modern foreign language entrant numbers are in decline. However, modern foreign languages were the most popular subjects in 2012-13 for UK students pursuing their studies in France and Germany.

Fewer UK students are choosing to take Modern foreign languages

Fewer UK students are choosing to take Modern foreign languages

Declines in full-time first degree entrants is also seen in joint honours degrees, where a modern foreign language is coupled with an area of study that is not a modern foreign language. Numbers of entrants to such courses fell by 22% between 2010-11 and 2012-13, continuing earlier declines.

Despite this decline, at secondary level the government says it is keen to promote modern languages as vital subjects. The Independent reports on a shake-up by Education Secretary Michael Gove, that will see students studying modern languages encouraged to speak the language more with all questions will be posed in the foreign language they are studying. More weight will be given to pupils’ speaking skills , with 25 per cent of GCSE marks awarded to that, and 25 per cent awarded for listening and responding.

Why modern foreign language enrolments at University is an interesting question. With global borders evermore open, language skills are increasingly vital. However, there is some evidence that employability merely arising from a, say, a French degree is not as strong a non-languagecourse and developing a strong fluency in a second language via other routes.

Is the decline in modern languages as degree level subjects worrying or should more emphasis by placing on languages at primary or second level so more young people have strong language skills at 18?

Tell us what you think.

Discoveries after 4 years of raising bilingual children

My eldest daughter, Martha, as just turned four and her sister, Malena, has just turned two. Both children have existed in a multilingual environment from day one. Martha speaks English and Spanish to more of less equal fluency and fully understands French, with a much lesser propensity to use it.

Looking back over the last four years, these are the discoveries I’ve found most interesting.

The bilingual siblings on the phone to Spain...

The bilingual siblings on the phone to Spain…

1. Being bilingual or multilingual did not significantly ‘stunt’ the age at which language was acquired. Some friends of Martha’s monolingual friends were very quick talkers so for a brief period I wondered but, looking at a wider selection of children, I realised she was just more average rather than precocious. And, of course, she was learning two languages. Malena, by contrast, is very much a ‘quick talker’ and frequently shocks us with the surprisingly elaborate utterances she sometimes produces in English, Spanish and even French. The important thing to note is that children develop at their own pace.

2. Bilingualism makes kids happy! It’s important to note that our approach to raising bilingual children has been about ‘exposing not imposing’. Through a mix of conscious language use in the home, attending play groups and social gatherings conducted in other languages, use of books, media and technology we have attempted to create a lively multilingual environment with no ‘drilling’ of language into the kids. Martha now wants to learn to and write, and is seeking support from us. Children are natural, avid learners and I feel that trying to force learning onto them merely interferes with their natural curiosity. She’s also asking a lot of ‘scientific’ questions so by using our small garden and books about the planets as illustrations I am trying to answer them.

3. Learning a THIRD language has worked. Lidia’s native tongue is Spanish but she also speaks English and French to a near-native level of fluency. She introduced French too from day one and Martha attends a French-speaking nursery school. I have to admit this was something I watched carefully. Would a third language be just too much? Would she be ‘lost’ or stressed by the French school? As it turned out it merely means that she fully understands French language – we believe as well as English and Spanish. Until recently she hadn’t uttered much French with us but is increasingly communicating in French with people she identifies as French speakers. In other words, she can identify the language of and English, Spanish or French speaker and speak the appropriate language, albeit with less ability in the third language. This is remarkable to me.

4. The children have a full and proper relationship with their Spanish extended family. Both girls talk more than once a week with their Aunt and Grandmother on Skype and when Martha visits Madrid she can talk to children she meets like a Spanish native speaker. It would have been terrible to have cut her off linguistically from all this by delaying language learning until later when it then has to be taught rather than acquired naturally.

5. My Spanish has improved and I’ve even picked up a fair amount of French. It was an eye opener one day when Martha asked me for something in Spanish and I had to quickly Google the word for a translation! She’s quickly outpaced my rather intermediate semi-fluent Spanish and I feel the need to keep up.

6. The kids already have a very global outlook. From birth the girls have existed in a multilingual and multicultural environment and know about other countries, different languages. It’s a world away from when I was a kid (I was probably 18 before I had a conversation with someone from the North of England) and I think the girls will definitely be much richer for it.