Learning in a British school and the foreign perspective

bilingual brain

Lifelong bilingualism is good for your brain says new research.

It is quite normal for everybody, all over the world, to complain about their national school system, it’s either useless, teachers are inept, there is too much homework, or too little, not enough practical activities or too many, and the list goes on. It seems that there is no one single system that we can call “perfect”. School by its own definition will always be imperfect, given that every single individual is very different, and with 25 to 30 kids in a classroom, you can imagine that it’s virtually impossible to really adapt the learning to every single child. It is also true that a lot of what teachers and staff do in schools has nothing to do with education or learning, but has more to do with the necessity of controlling the crowd, setting boundaries and rules, so they don’t end up with 25 kids running riot around the classroom or 500 hundred in the canteen!

I think most parents accept that to an extent, and we also draw from our own experience in school. However, it is quite shocking the difference of expectations and opinions that one can draw from different cultures with regards to education and schools. In Britain especially the expectations of foreign born parents and British born parents can be quite different. Foreign born parents remember their school years through the textbooks, homework and tests, they remember getting their textbooks at the beginning of the year, caring for them, and paying an ocasional fine when they failed to return the book, or they damaged it. They expect the same for their children, to have a book, a basic tool, that they can use at home. They would like to be able to sit with their child, look through his workbooks, his annotations, the teacher’s comments and support their child, do the homework together, revise the last lesson, have a look at the index to see what their child is going to learn that year. Of course, that is not possible currently in the British system, textbooks are not used, and although parents are constantly asked to support their child in school, there is virtually no homework (compared to what we used to get in the old country). Foreign parents are at a loss, “there is no textbook? No workbook?” – “what am I supposed to teach him at home?” British parents, on the other hand, are happily unaware of the existence of school systems where people can easily, actually at a glance by reading the index, know what it is that their child is going to learn that year, without having to get constant email updates from the school. It doesn’t seem to worry them as much as foreign parents the fact that they can’t sit with their children to do homework or revise their workbook, because it’s all in school. Homework is done on worksheets or photocopies, and that’s fine, there is no need to read from the textbook or summarise it. They sigh with relief when foreign parents tell them about the piles of homework the children do in other countries.

 

What is the right answer? Well, a bit of both, I suppose, not piles of homework, but more than they get, and textbooks, please. In a way for foreign families, bilingual families, it is very important to actually have a textbook or a manual for each subject or topic. Isn’t that a bit prescriptive? – Some may ask. Well, yes and no. If you are a good teacher, you can still plan our lessons properly, having a textbook only means that your students, especially your foreign students, can go home and read more, revise what they have done in class. For foreign students, EAL students (English as an Additional Language) as they’re known in the UK, it’s actually a good tool to have. Given that they are new to the language, listening to the stuff in class doesn’t mean it’s going to stick, unless you have 100% recall ability… which I haven’t yet met anybody who does! To a certain extent we all need to re-read things a few times before we are able to recall it, but for foreign students it’s also about language acquisition and learning new terms that are specific to academic subjects.

unschooling?

Is unschooling the ultimate form of natural education or an unrealistic fad?

One of the main issues that schools face these days are “false native speakers”, as I call them. That is children who were either born in the country to foreign parents, or who came into the country when they were very young. These students pass for native speakers, they speak with perfect accents, they have mastered the young adult’s language and turn of phrases, however, they speak a different language at home, and they only time they use “academic” or “school language” is in lessons, with teachers. Most of the time these students go through the system unnoticed, apparently doing well, especially since the UK educational system lacks any examination system that means students need to achieve a certain level before they move on, they just simply trundle along happily. Happily, that is until they get to the dreaded GCSEs, the first official examinations taken in England and Wales, at 14 and 15. There is when problems start popping up, your regular student suddenly realises that he lacks the body of linguistic knowledge necessary to understand and write at the appropriate academic level. This is the plague of the GCSE teacher and his “false native” speakers. Is there an easy solution? Well, yes and no. Nick Gibb, the current Minister of State at the Department for Education, supported the report drawn by Tim Oatesone of the world’s foremost experts on the school curriculum, Why Textbooks Count. Tim Oates emphasised the need for curriculum coherence and the return of quality textbooks to British schools. I think most foreign born parents will read the paper and agree with most of it, or at least think it’s actually a common sense idea. Like most of reports written for the government, we could have said the same thing if asked, without the expense incurred! However, it’s not surprising either that most of the news articles about this paper are riddled with criticism and derisive comments from “well meaning” posters, given the irrational fear most locals have towards textbooks.

Textbooks, in my opinion, good quality textbooks used adequately, will solve a lot of the problems of the school system, to start with, it would give bilingual students a good chance to become acquainted with the specific language used for different academic subjects, as well as in different contexts. Instead of having to draw it from different sources, bad quality photocopies, and notes copied from PowerPoint presentations, often riddled with spelling mistakes, they would have a basic tool that they could use to build on. They would also be useful for native speakers and their parents, who rather than “guess” what the content of the subject is, given that now the schools’ tendency is to keep all work and books in school, could then read the book, pick any topic they feel unsure of or they want to learn more about and do some research. However, I can see one issue, well, two issues really, firstly is the recalcitrant attitude many parents and teachers have developed towards textbooks, a total irrational fear towards something that has for so long held the knowledge of humanity. The second issue is money, of course, in other countries September can be a very difficult month financially, as one has to cough up the money for the textbooks, in other areas the schools simply provide the books on loan for a year, and if you break it you pay for it. In Britain, the tendency has been for schools to provide all learning materials, so parents would resist the idea of having to pay for anything, and although apparently there is money for expensive interactive whiteboards and projectors, that are used mainly, solely, to project PowerPoints and educational video clips, there is no money for actual textbooks.

What are your views on the topic? Are you for or against textbooks? Do you love or do you hate the current education system in your country?

Mum, what is sweet in Chinese? 5 Steps to ease your child into a foreign language

Chinese writingWell, I don’t know, sweety, but we can find out… I never thought that it would really get to that point where they actually “think by themselves” and start showing interest in other languages. Of course, it was going to happen, but when you hold your little bundle of joy for the first time, be it in hospital or at home, you just think about protecting it and what you can give it, you don’t think about what they may ask in the future! I don’t really push other languages and I don’t really intend to send them to formal language lessons, unless they want to go, of course. At the moment, making sure we keep the balance with three languages is hard work enough. Also, personally, I don’t believe that acquiring two or three languages when you are a child gives you a wand that magically makes you learn another language effortlessly when you wave it around. [Read more...]

What if your child refuses to speak the minority language?

Bilingualism does not follow a straightforward path and it’s not an exact science. There are many different variables that can influence bilingual families and bilingual individuals. Many successful bilingual parents don’t really stop to consider ‘what ifs…?’

What if your kid suddenly turned around and said that he doesn’t want to speak your language? What would you do? Would you feel disappointed, shame, a feeling of failure? This is a very normal, a fresh challenge and a new side of bilingualism, which is totally normal, and quite common for many bilingual families.

lets-play-bingo-1-602195-m
As we mature and gain experience our view of the world changes. Once you begin raising a bilingual child, you will change too. When I was a student I thought bilingual children always spoke perfectly in two languages, with spotless vocabulary and genuine accent. Nothing could be further from the truth. With time and experience, I have realised that individual children are different, their circumstances are different, and I have seen many children with good command of two languages but with “thick” foreign accents in their minority language. So don´t assume a bilingual child will necessarily speak with a flawless accent.

Likewise, I no longer assume that bilingual children will all switch on and off the minority language when you want… they’re not robots after all. I feel lucky that my 4 year old has taken to speaking Spanish like a duck to water, and although she’s not unique, she’s not representative of all bilingual kids either. I know a few bilingual kids who speak their minority language, albeit using a restrictive code, limited vocabulary, mixed grammar, and strong accents, All of these are normal. It really depends on the child and the circumstances.

When the terrible 2's arrive kids love to say 'no' to Mum and Dad...

When the terrible 2′s arrive kids love to say ‘no’ to Mum and Dad…

There are children who simply refuse to speak the minority language. The reasons may be very different. They are also on the normal spectrum, there is nothing strange or weird about it, there is not reason to feel guilty either, you just need to take it a step at a time.

If you’re reading this, I imagine you’re interested in raising your children bilingually and overcoming these challenges. So, let’s look at a few tips and ideas that may help your child.

1. First of all, don’t give up. I know quite a few frustrated adults who complained about their parents listening to them when they were young and asked them to stop talking to them in “that foreign language”. They now deeply regret not being able to communicate with their families in “that language”. However, I haven’t met yet any individual that complains about being able to speak two languages.

Think about what can be affecting your child:

2. Is the environment hostile to your language and the national identity you represent? Do you think your child may be picking up on that hostility and he just wants to fit in?

Be positive and think about the things that you could do to help him feel more at ease with the language. Don’t think about what you or he can’t do, but what is possible: find other families with the same language, celebrate fun festivals, read interesting story books with them, watch TV programmes he may like, use hobbies to channel the language, etc.

3. Is she finding school difficult? Does she have problems with Literacy in school? Sometimes well meaning but misinformed professionals think that the reason a child has problems with school subjects is because the influence the second language is having. In that case, you can address his problems in school, and help her with it. Developing Literacy and language in the home language can also help him with his first language.

4. Is he just going through a phase like the terrible 2s? It may be that he wants to assert his identity making his own decisions, and saying no to something that it´s obviously important to you may be one way of doing it… just keep using the language! Toddlers and young children love saying ‘no’ to everything.

5. Ultimately, the reasons why a child may not want to speak the minority language are as many as children there are in the world. So, just be patient and try to find out if there is a reason, so you can deal with it.

Remember, that it´s really never too late to learn a foreign language, but it´s also true that it´s easier when one is younger. So, keep at it!

Four years on… how are we doing?

I am sure that some of you who read our blog come back time and time again to see how we are doing, how are the children coping with the multilingual environment. It could be that you are planning the same, you are unsure of what to expect, you want reassurance there are other people out there doing the same, or you are just curious and want to follow our adventure through time. [Read more...]

Multilingual Childhoods

We are entering the fourth year of our multilingual adventure. With my eldest daughter soon to be four, we have got to that stage where we can relax a bit about language learning. She is already speaking fluently in two languages, English and Spanish, and doesn’t seem to resent it or even think it’s weird. I suppose it has also something to do with the fact that most of her friends are also bilingual or multilingual. We are also feeling increasingly confident about her third language, French. She understands it perfectly and she has started speaking bait to me and to my French friends. [Read more...]

It’s the Season to be Jolly…

Merry XmasIt is indeed the Season to be Jolly for those who celebrate Christmas. But of course as every year, I feel that cultural differences are at their peak here. I still find it strange to talk about cultural differences between two European countries so close in space and with so much history in common, but Christmas is lived differently in England and Spain. [Read more...]

How come your child responds in Spanish?º

“How come your child responds in Spanish?” Substitute the word  “Spanish” for whichever language you speak at home, and voilà, I am sure you will have heard that many times from bilingual families whose children refuse to speak the language of  their bilingual father/mother. This is exactly what a dad with a Spanish wife and a child who, although seemed to understand Spanish, was                         unable/refused to speak it. asked my husband this summer. [Read more...]

Summer language immersion

Summer is the ideal time for language immersion in our family, not because some mystic powers transferred though the energy of the solar energy, but because it’s usually when we have the longest holidays. [Read more...]

New Year’s resolutions and the bilingual children

2013 marks the start of a new era, not only for the whole world if we believe the Mayan prophecies, but also for my little family and many more around the world. As many of you know if you have been following this blog, we started off planning for our bilingual children as soon as we knew they were coming. I always loved languages and had to learn them the hard way, namely, sitting, translating and studying grammar, so nobody can be surprised if I wanted my children to know languages without the hardship. So, since birth, our two daughters have been spoken to in three languages, Spanish my native language, English Dad’s native language and the local language and French, which I speak fluently but it’s not our native language. [Read more...]

Using Apps and Internet based programs to your bilingual advantage

Working as a translator in the 21st century I often wonder how the translators survived 100 years ago? The Internet has really made our life much easier in terms of availability of information. Some people complain that it’s too much, but to be honest, it’s probably the same people who moan at the end of the day because they have too much work and their desk is a mess, the answer is the same as it’s always been, prioritizing.  [Read more...]