The importance of early years bilingualism

This is an issue at the top of the to-do lists of many parents, along with music, sport, school and many other activities that are thought important for children nowadays. The British Council in Madrid, an education centre established to bring English education to those Britons living abroad as well as many local families who want their children to grow up bilingual, will host the II Jornada de Bilingüismo en Edades Tempranas (the Second Conference of Early Years Bilingualism). Ellen Bialystok, a Canadian psychologist with a specialization in cognitive and language development in children, will speak at the conference about the benefits of bilingualism. 

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Ellen believes that the fact that children can absorb and assimilate information very easily means that the early years are the ideal time to learn another language. She also supports the theory that learning a second language has great cognitive advantages that will help the brain stay healthy and prevent early degeneration. She also highlights other, more mundane, advantages like helping people living in a global world and giving them those extra tools for survival in our modern economy.

In a previous conference held by the Spanish branch of the British Council, a bilingual educator, Alexander Sokol gave some pointers to parents who wanted to bring up their children bilingually. Some of them are things that I have already mentioned in Bilingual Parenting as being important for the relation between bilingual parents and children, like making sure that you are not just pointing at things and saying the name, just teaching vocabulary, but speaking in simple sentences in context. Even if you have just started speaking to your child in the second language, using it in a meaningful context will make things much easier.

Sokol also believes that all approaches are okay if they work for your family. He suggests that parents shouldn’t worry so much about “teaching” their children, because he thinks that their function is not so much academic as it is educational in a playful way. Any activities and language acquired through the parents can then be reinforced if necessary at school or with private tutors.

He points out that before undertaking any “language” activities with your children, parents should think about their reasons for wanting their children to learn that language, living in the country, having family abroad, or they just want them to speak a foreign language. There are other variables to take into account like age of the children, previous knowledge, resources available, etc.

Sokol has suggested some ground rules that may help us plan our strategy:

1. Start with sentences rather than single words.
2. Translate without translating (explaining in simpler language, things they may know, use body language to explain concepts)
3. Be patient and don’t expect too much (remember the silent period)
4. Subtle corrections.
5. Take advantage of those moments when they are doing their favourite activities.
6. Give them time to get ready to speak (silent period)
7. The best resources are their environment and their games.

Alexander Sokol is bilingual, from Riga, he learnt to speak Russian and Lithuanian at the same time, as most people in the city. He also learnt English and speaks to his children in English.

These two people are, in my opinion, great examples of people who support bilingualism in the early years, and like Alexander Sokol, there are more and more  people educating their children in a language that is not their native language at home. Teachers and tutors can support the work done by the parents at home, but at the end of the day, the parents are the people who spend more time with the children and there lies the key to success, the amount of time and the quality of activities in the language we want them to learn.

 

 

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Celebrities speaking other languages

We’re used to US and British-based superstars speaking English. But here are some celebrities who are bilingual, or at least pretty fluent, in other languages.

Can you think of any other good ones to add?

Here’s Colin Firth being interviewed in italian

Mila Kunis’s Russian language interview in Moscow

The Fantastic Four’s Ioan Gruffudd speaking Welsh

Kim Cattrall speaking fluent German

Rhys Ifans talking about poet Dylan Thomas in Welsh

Natalie Portman speaks Hebrew

Here’s Charlize Theron speaking Afrikaans with a Dutch speaking Belgian reporter…

Jodie Foster’s French interview

Singer Shakira manages to speak five different languages:

Ex-Liverpool and Real Madrid footballer Steve McManaman speaking ‘scouse’ Spanish.

Cillian Murphy acting in Irish Gaelic

Sandra Bullock speaking in German

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.

Speaking in Tongues documentary challenges America to think differently about bilingualism

While in multilingual Europe people tend to see fluency in more than one language a distinct advantage, in some countries it can be a political hot potato. Nowhere is this truer than in the United States, where the growth of Spanish speaking in particular has proven controversial.

It’s a common idea that a single official language glues a nation together and that exploring other languages might somehow undermines this. Even progressively-minded people sometimes assume that encouraging bilingualism to flourish among immigrant groups will leave them marginalised and socially disadvantaged. Yet the makers of documentary Speaking in Tongues uncover something very different.

For example, language learning has a positive effect on intellectual growth and cognitive development, improving a child’s understanding of his/her native language and that students in language immersion programs learn to read, write, speak, and listen in English just as well or better as students in all-English programs.

The film begins with an ordinary first day of public school kindergarten – expect the teacher speaks only Chinese to primarily white and Asian American students. They are taking part in a language immersion class, where they receive 90% of their instruction in Cantonese. While this might sound gruelling, the children are clearly curious and enjoying themselves and, remarkably, their school will test first in English and mathematics among the district’s 76 elementary schools.

“Sometimes a small idea has big implications” say the film’s directors Marcia Jarmel & Ken Schneider in a statement. “Consider America’s resolute commitment to remaining an “English only” nation. It turns out that our attitudes about language reflect much bigger concerns: that language is a metaphor for the barriers that come between neighbors, be they across the street or around the world. Our idea in making Speaking in Tongues was to showcase a world where these communication barriers are being addressed.”

Speaking in Tongues follows the linguistic journey of four students: Durrell is a 2nd grader at Starr King Elementary where and his classmates are already reading and writing in Mandarin. 7th grader at Alice Fong Yu Alternative School, Kelly Wong reads and writes both Cantonese and Mandarin. Jason, is maintaining a great grades in middle school, testing above grade level in both English and Spanish. Julian is a sophomore at Lowell High School where he is currently taking the highest level of Chinese offered in the school district. There stories all reveal the potential strength of a multilingual America.

People in the USA can rent the Speaking in Tongues documentary online via Amazon Prime here: Speaking in Tongues (Home/Personal/Nonprofessional Use Only)

To learn more about the documentary, to arrange a screening, visit:

http://speakingintonguesfilm.info

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A Tour Of The British Isles in accents

The sheer number of accents in the British Isles often confuses England language learners. Actually, it quite often confuses native speakers too – I sometimes had a hard time understanding Glaswegian taxi drivers.

In this YouTube clip Google Maps-generated video is set to speech from from a BBC Radio 4 programme featuring expert dialect coach, Andrew Jack.

If you’re British, now accurate do think they are? If you have English as a second language, did any confuse you?

International Map of Languages

Screenshot 2014-04-03 22.47.42Sandy Ritchie from SOAS, University of London, is collaborating in a project to create a new online world to celebrate languages and help protect rare and endangered languages. They are creating a world map online that will show the spread of languages through the recordings uploaded by individual speakers from all over the world.  A great idea! [Read more...]

Growing numbers of bilingual families in Australia

talk-bubble-856552-mWhen I read about the growing numbers of bilingual families in Australia, I immediately recognise the same social pattern here in the UK, as well as in most European countries. This situation raises several questions, should the families push their children to learn mainly the local language so they can integrate better in their new society? Should they push them to speak mainly the minority language so they can maintain the link with their roots? How does learning two language influence their cognitive abilities? And many more, although, for me, having worked in a special needs department in a secondary school, it was perhaps this one which stood out the most: how can we assess language impairment in a bilingual child? [Read more...]

Bilingualism increases mental agility says new research

A large amount of scientific data points to the benefits of growing up bilingual and fresh research from the University of Strathclyde, Scotland reinforces this view.

The study, published in the Journal of Bilingualism, found that bilingual children outperform monolingual children in problem-solving skills and creative thinking. Researchers examined primary school pupils who spoke English or Italian, half of whom also spoke Gaelic or Sardinian, and found that bilingual children were significantly more successful in tasks set for them.

A total of 121 children around the age of 9 in Scotland and Sardinia, 62 of them bilingual, were given tasks where they need to reproduce patterns of coloured blocks, repeat a series of numbers, to give definitions of words and resolve mentally a set of arithmetic problems. Tasks were all set in English or Italian.

New research suggest bilingualism benefits mental agility.

New research suggest bilingualism benefits mental agility.

Differences in performance between the groups were linked to the mental alertness required to switch between languages, which could develop skills useful in other types of thinking. The Gaelic-speaking children were even more successful than their Sardinian counterparts, which may have been due to the formal teaching of the language and literature. Sardinian is not widely taught in schools.

Dr Fraser Lauchlan, of Strathclyde’s School of Psychological Sciences & Health, led the research. He said: “Bilingualism is now largely seen as being beneficial to children but there remains a view that it can be confusing, and so potentially detrimental to them.

“Our study has found that it can have demonstrable benefits, not only in language but in arithmetic, problem solving and enabling children to think creatively. We also assessed the children’s vocabulary, not so much for their knowledge of words as their understanding of them. Again, there was a marked difference in the level of detail and richness in description from the bilingual pupils.

“We also found they had an aptitude for selective attention- the ability to identify and focus on information which is important, while filtering out what is not- which could come from the ‘code-switching’ of thinking in two different languages.”