Claire Win­ter­ton

Most par­ents mov­ing to France hope that their chil­dren ad­just quickly to the lan­guage of their new peers. But just how easy is it for a child to be­come bilin­gual? Claire Win­ter­ton talks to ex­perts in bilin­gual­ism, as well as fam­i­lies who have made the mov

Living France - - Editor's Letter -

Claire is a freelance writer and English teacher who has lived in south-west France since 2007. Hav­ing raised chil­dren in France, she has en­joyed writ­ing about bilin­gual­ism

When mov­ing to France, many par­ents have con­cerns about how their chil­dren will cope learn­ing the lan­guage. Will they be like sponges and just ab­sorb it? Will they feel frus­trated or con­fused if they’re mis­un­der­stood or can’t com­mu­ni­cate prop­erly? Will they strug­gle to make friends or do their school work?

A lot de­pends on the in­di­vid­ual sit­u­a­tion and at what age the child learns the two lan­guages, ac­cord­ing to Krista By­ers-Hein­lein, PhD, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at Mon­tréal’s Con­cor­dia Univer­sity and ex­pert in bilin­gual­ism in in­fancy. “There are lots of dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions in which chil­dren be­come bilin­gual,” she says. “For ex­am­ple, they may be born into bilin­gual en­vi­ron­ments and learn two lan­guages from birth. Or they may have al­ready learned one lan­guage and then be ex­posed to a sec­ond one. So it’s dif­fer­ent in ev­ery sit­u­a­tion, but all chil­dren learn by lis­ten­ing and speak­ing, so they need to be given the op­por­tu­nity to do that in both lan­guages.”

Krista is quick to dis­pel the myth that it is easy for chil­dren to learn a new lan­guage. “It is chal­leng­ing for kids – they’re not quite like sponges,” she says. “It’s not im­me­di­ate, it’s dif­fi­cult and takes time, but kids are pretty good at learn­ing lan­guages, es­pe­cially if they’re in an im­mer­sion con­text. Mo­ti­va­tion is what makes the big­gest dif­fer­ence – chil­dren are very sen­si­tive to so­cial sit­u­a­tions and what their peers speak, so they are very mo­ti­vated to learn the lan­guage of their friends.”

François Gros­jean, PhD, Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor of psy­cholin­guis­tics, Neuchâ­tel Univer­sity, Switzer­land, agrees and em­pha­sises the im­por­tance of sup­port.

“A child’s first steps in a sec­ond lan­guage need to be mon­i­tored care­fully by par­ents. Of course, the child will not be able to ex­press ev­ery­thing in the early stages and might feel iso­lated in his or her new school. That’s where par­ents must help out. They must be present when the go­ing gets dif­fi­cult and frus­tra­tion oc­curs due to things such as a com­mu­ni­ca­tion prob­lem, an un­kind re­mark by an adult or a child or a bad grade in the weaker lan­guage.”

So is there an age when chil­dren find it more dif­fi­cult to learn a sec­ond lan­guage? “It’s go­ing to feel dif­fer­ent for a two-year-old com­pared to a 10-year-old,” said Krista. “We used to think there was a crit­i­cal pe­riod and now we think there’s more a sen­si­tive pe­riod for learn­ing, but the younger they are, the eas­ier in terms of learn­ing new ac­cents and sounds, as younger chil­dren are more flex­i­ble.”

François is wary of the be­lief that the ear­lier a sec­ond lan­guage is learned, the more flu­ent a child will be. “When we ex­am­ine the sci­en­tific foundation this be­lief is based on, we find that it is not as strong as we might think. In fact, there is no age limit to en­ter­ing the world of bilin­gual­ism; it can take place at any time,” he says.

As for any par­ents wor­ried about whether the process of be­com­ing bilin­gual will in some way change their chil­dren, Krista adds: “If it does, it’s very sub­tle.

“Chil­dren are mo­ti­vated to learn the lan­guage of their friends”

It might make chil­dren more open and flex­i­ble in their think­ing, but ul­ti­mately your child will be the same whether he or she is bilin­gual or not; a bilin­gual child will just speak two lan­guages.”

When it comes to in­tro­duc­ing a sec­ond lan­guage to your child, Krista says there is no blan­ket rec­om­men­da­tion for how to do it – whether you use it at home or leave it up to a child­min­der or school en­vi­ron­ment. Ide­ally, the child should have 50-50 ac­cess to both lan­guages, but Krista ac­knowl­edges that isn’t al­ways pos­si­ble, so her ad­vice is to do what you feel con­fi­dent with. “The main thing is to re­mem­ber that chil­dren learn by speak­ing and lis­ten­ing, so they need to hear a new lan­guage to learn it, but how you man­age that is up to you,” she says.

An­other con­cern for par­ents is that the read­ing and writ­ing lev­els of their child don’t drop in ei­ther lan­guage, and whether it will be con­fus­ing to learn both at the same time. François is fa­mil­iar with this: “In 2006, a four-year study in the US showed the lit­er­acy skills a stu­dent has in one lan­guage can ac­tu­ally help the stu­dent de­velop lit­er­acy skills in the other. So, clearly, bilit­er­acy is pos­si­ble and it will not hin­der the bilin­gual child.”

So, over­all, the ex­pert’s ad­vice seems to be go for it. Find a plan that works for you and stick to it, and be there to sup­port your child ev­ery word of the way.

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