To Be Or Not To Be Literate

Living abroad as an expat is hard enough for some, especially if the reason for the move is not out of personal choice, but when children start coming then you add the second language dilema, and when they reach primary school age, then another layer Chinese writingof complexity appears, Literacy.

To be or not to be literate in two or more languages is the question that many parents of bilingual children ponder about often. Should we think so hard about this? Well, just like being a good runner and having good aim with a bow an arrow may have been a good skill to have in a world where outrunning the beasts and killing your food was top priority, in our technological world reading and writing are part of our tool kit, our skill set for modern life.

Parents and everybody who is pondering the question of bilingualism, be it for themselves or their children, should think about their aims and what they expect from the two or more languages they speak. Sometimes just speaking a language will not be enough if what we want is to be able to function in the modern world with that language.

Recently, a family known to one of my colleagues, who had spent most of their children’s early formative years in English speaking countries, had a good opportunity back home, so they packed up and returned. The shock came when their children’s teachers had trouble working with the children in primary and secondary schools, because although they spoke the language as natives, had little or no understanding at all of reading and writing. They had not had any formal tuition in reading and writing, in how language changes depending to context and how a written language is generally different to the way we speak.51yc9AbzaTL

This family and my colleague found the incident curious and still are flabbergasted at the puzzled reactions of teachers. The parents do not understand why teachers would expect the children to read and write in their language, when they went to school in a different country. They expect the establishment to treat them and put in place the same interventions as if they had been foreign children.

In a way, I imagine they have a point. The children have been educated in a foreign country, in a foreign language, and they did not ever expect to return to their native country. But, I can’t but ask the inevitable question, wether this is fair for the children ,and wether this was done for the children or for the adults.

The commitment to bilingualism is a big one, we should not have unrealistic expectations, but we should not even lower the bar so low that it disappears in the sand as if it never was. Speaking and understanding a language is a natural process, children acquire their native language, they do not consciously sit down and decide to study grammar and verb endings. However, reading and writing are invented systems, and as any system that is man made has its flaws, what may have been logical at some point in the past, may not be so logical for us. As any invented system we need to consciously learn it.

There are people who talk about “picking up” reading and writing. We don’t just pick up reading and writing. There will always be a minority who are more skilled than others to work out the rules in their heads and put them into practice, but even those few lucky ones couldn’t do it without input, people reading to them consistently and correcting their mistakes. For the rest, well, we do need actual tuition.

Going back with our family from earlier, when I suggested to my colleague that perhaps the parents should have taught the children how to read and write in their native language, the answer was a puzzled “what? No, they are not teachers, and they did not think they would ever return.” The first myth ” I am not a teacher” is easy debunked, before any teaching training colleges and certificates in teaching were invented there were people who taught, we are all teachers. Secondly, “my child will never go back, he does not need it” is just a short sighted statement given that we cannot see the future, we do not know what tools our children will need, we just need to provide them with the best kit, with the best tools, so they have a choice.

When considering the amount of effort, time and money you are prepared and can afford to invest in your children’s bilingualism, consider what you want them to do with their bilingualism. If you would like them to be able to use it in their professional career at some level, even if it is just to offer customer service or reception services at a desk in a hotel, they will need to be literate. Nowadays, we assume reading and writing when we talk about “speaking a foreign language”, employers may advertise for somebody “speaking a certain” language, but what they really mean is reading, writing, speaking and listening.

Should you give up speaking to your children in your mother tongue if you think you will not be able to provide an education in reading and writing, not of course not, speaking and understanding is the basics. However, part of the commitment to bilingualism is pondering how and when you can provide your children with the knowledge necessary to crack the code, the reading and writing code.



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