This is an excerpt from a lecture given by Irene Fafalios at the Montessori Society AGM in London in 2007. Irene explains the different forms that bilingualism takes in today’s multicultural society and how as teachers and parents we can support children who speak more than one language.
What do we mean by bilingualism? Simply defined a bilingual person would be one who has the ability to speak two languages. I could further qualify this initial definition, by saying that a bilingual person is one who has been exposed to two languages from birth. But a bilingual person is also one who has immigrated to, or chosen to settle in another country and has had to learn a second language later on in life. A bilingual family is one in which at least one member has a different mother tongue from the others. But again there are many instances – for both parents may speak the same language which is different from the language their child is becoming proficient in at school, or, the two parents may have two different native languages, and perhaps communicate using a third language. According to Jim Cummins bilingual education exists when two languages are used as a means of instruction, in order to attain proficiency in the one language. When this proficiency is obtained, then bilingual education is stopped. However, there is also bilingual education, which is in fact instruction primarily or exclusively in one language, in order to maintain both!
Bilingualism has to do with language, of course. Language is not just something that has to do with the neural pathways that connect the linguistic centres of our brain – language touches our very identity. As Montessorians we know that we become that which we absorb in those first three years of life. The language we are exposed to as infants clearly provides us with an identity that goes well beyond images and experiences or linguistic skills. In absorbing a language we are not just absorbing a way of communicating. In absorbing a language, we become a member of our human group. Our mother tongue is laden not only with all our mother’s being and emotions, it is also our native tongue – belonging to a particular people, a particular community – and is therefore laden with all their beings, their histories, their tragedies, their triumphs. Our language not only expresses our emotions, it is our emotions. Our language is our heritage. In assuming a language, we are taking on a heritage. In continuing and developing this heritage we are continuing and developing, in fact, a language and together with that language – ourselves!
It is therefore important that as teachers and parents we are aware of one or two factors, which will explain the child’s behavior towards us, and will in turn determine our behaviour towards the child. Broadly speaking, we could say that there are two main categories of bilinguals:
The Elitist Bilingual is one who speaks English and French…. English and German – who by being bilingual attains social status and prestige, has great social advantages, opportunities and access to universities and prestigious jobs. For this person, bilingualism is a very positive factor: since two languages, exposes the individual to two cultures, two literary traditions and hence to a huge wealth of cultural and moral ideas – ideally making of the individual a far more tolerant, flexible and adaptable person. Greater interpersonal and communication skills are acquired, thereby raising the individual’s confidence and self esteem.
The Non-Elitist Bilingual is the migrant, the refugee asylum seeker, the one stricken by poverty, illness, high birth rates, poor education – people who are socially excluded precisely because of the two languages they command. Children of these families realize, that their own family and home culture serves as a handicap. They feel increasingly excluded, and negative feelings about themselves, their background and their origins, are reinforced by the wider community – the dominant society. This lack of self-esteem and confidence becomes apparent early on in their school performance and their gradual withdrawal and disinterest is reflected in their low academic achievements.
We see therefore, that it is not bilingualism per se which is the disadvantage, but it is the peripheral society’s attitude that influences our perception of specific bilingual situations. The bilingual child is seen as one who has great advantages if the two languages it speaks are French and English, but not so if it speaks Greek and Albanian. Children who speak two languages and who feel accepted by both cultures will identify with both. However, when the two cultures have unfriendly relations, then it is often the case that children are instead shunned by both cultures. This however is not a bilingual issue – it is clearly a political issue with distinct social and psychological repercussions for the bilingual individual.
Schools can play a very important role, in offering both children – but particularly the non elitist bilingual – the sort of support required to raise self esteem, provide a sense of self worth and confidence that will enable them to survive and succeed in a seemingly hostile society. As teachers, we need to confront our own experiences, feelings and prejudices on these issues, for they unconsciously creep in to the classroom and very subtly colour our interactions with various children. Our awareness and sensitivity to our own reactions and to those experienced by the children in our care, is crucial, if we are to provide each individual and his or her family with the sort of help and support that they might need.
One of the primary concerns of parents, who find themselves in a bilingual situation, is the question of whether they should continue to speak the home language to their child. The truth is that there have been many attempts in the past, to convey the message that the bilingual child is at a clear disadvantage. People felt that bilingualism caused linguistic handicaps, emotional conflicts and cognitive confusion in children. So there were many attempts to prevent children from speaking their home language either in school or at home, on the grounds that this was detrimental to their development and to the nation at large.
The first thing we need to convey to parents, is that bilingualism is not a pathology – it actually seems to do you good! So long as a supportive environment affirms a child’s identity, then research indicates that bilingualism can positively affect both intellectual and linguistic progress, and that there are distinct cognitive, communicative and cultural advantages to having access to two linguistic systems. It seems that bilingual children show a greater sensitivity to linguistic meanings, may be more flexible in their thinking and show greater analytical and problem solving skills. This conceptual development in two languages allows the transference of academic skills across two languages, and enables young children to acquire an awareness of the structure and function of language itself.
What we can do as teachers, is to encourage and help parents find a fixed pattern for language use in the home, for this makes things much easier both for the children learning the languages and for the adults in their day to day life with two (or more) languages.
One such pattern is One Parent One Language: where the two parents each speak two different native languages and each consistently speaks their own native language to the children. Emphasis must be given to the words ‘native’ and ‘consistently’. Consistency is of the utmost importance, so that children may have a clear idea who speaks which language and to whom. Bearing in mind what we know about the child and his sensitive periods for order and language in the first six years of life, this should not surprise us. For me it is the most efficient and efficacious model for all concerned.
Another pattern could be The Minority Language at Home or The Foreign Home Pattern where everyone speaks the minority (non-community) language at home and the community language outside. This also is a very good pattern to recommend to parents – it is simple, clear and functional.
In a bilingual family, the parents will certainly have to invest time in sustaining an equally strong and rich linguistic environment in terms of songs, stories, riddles, tales, jokes and tapes. It is important that the child receives the same type and degree of linguistic stimulation in both languages, where possible. Above all, however, it is important that the family enjoys its bilingualism. No child should be coerced into speaking a language when it does not wish to. Asking children to say something in a certain language for a guest to hear is humiliating and embarrassing. A bilingual family is nothing special and is increasingly less of a phenomenon. A child should see it as a natural part of his family life. It is then far more likely that children will grow up enjoying being bilingual and that both languages will be kept active.
The significance of keeping the home language alive, is apparent in recent research that shows how the development of this first home language, helps the development of a second or third language. In the past it was thought that if the child is not proficient in the language of instruction, i.e. English, then more time should be given to learning English and less time to his home language. However, research shows that in order to gain greater proficiency in the language of instruction, it is best to sustain and support the home language. This is because of cross language transfer, where skills, knowledge and cognitive strategies that a child has, are transferred between the first andsecond language – by acquiring and developing one language well, the child gains a universal understanding of language that makes it much easier for him to learn and become proficient in a second or additional languages.But what do we mean when we talk about ‘proficiency’ in a language? We have two levels of language acquisition that are relevant to bilingualism:
Rapid Language Development– Social English
In this instance the speaker learns the surface language patterns and can, within a very short period of time – usually one to two years – sound like a native speaker. This informal, superficial language skill, in which short, simple sentence structures are predominant,is what is also referred to as ‘conversational’, ‘playground’ or Social English. Social English requires a smaller vocabulary than Academic English. Children use Social English with peers and adults in relaxed, playful, informal situations. It is the first type of English that we hear our young English Learners use, and it is important for teachers to remember that each child will develop this skill at his or her own pace.
Academic Language Development– Academic English
Studies have shown that it takes school-age bilingual children five to seven years to master Academic English that requires longer, more complex sentence structures as well as a larger vocabulary than Social English. It is important for us teachers to remember this time factor, so that when we come to assess language development, we do not immediately label this child as having language difficulties or disorders.
So far we have given emphasis on the importance of supporting and maintaining the home language, throughout a child’s education, for better acquisition and proficiency in the language of instruction. However, we should make it clear that our aim should never be to have a totally balanced bilingual person – there is no such thing. There is always a dominant language, which may also be expressed by the use of different languages in different contexts.
The relationship between first and second language development and learning is never one where the two are equal. Although it seems that the key factor in the acquisition of bilingualism is the age of exposure to the two languages and the type or extent of exposure to each language, it is very difficult to develop the same skills in both languages.
There are three ways to acquire and develop a second language:
Simultaneous Bilingualism applies to children who are exposed and who develop both languages more or less, at the same time. The pattern of language acquisition that such a child follows is very similar to a child who learns each language separately i.e. it follows the usual path of language development.
In bilingual preschools, the ideal would be to have native speakers for both languages spoken, thereby reflecting and supporting what is going on at home. We need to be aware how important it is to model appropriate language for children at this stage. We need to listen patiently to attempts the child makes to express himself verbally, and be aware how sensitive bilingual children are of mistakes they make or might make.
We need to provide children with opportunities for appropriate use of specific language, both in group situations, and on a one to one basis with friends. A mixed age group is ideal for exposing children to a variety of opportunities for language use be it in conversation with one another, where they can express their feelings and explore their ideas in both languages, or be it in activities that children organise themselves. Children who are reluctant to speak are sometimes more forthcoming if we organise games where they can imitate or repeat what someone says.
Successive Bilingualism applies to children whose home language is well established and they learn the second language when they come to school. Children acquiring a second language generally go through the following four stages of language acquisition. Being aware of this model helps us have reasonable expectations of children.
1. The child who enters the preschool understanding hardly any English, will either stop talking altogether and use nonverbal ways of communicating, or he will use his home language, which may not be understood by others but which is his only means of communication. Eventually of course, children no longer use their home language with those who do not understand it. However, it appears that continued use and development of the child’s home language, will benefit children as they acquire English. For this reason we should not discourage parents from using the home language at home during this time.
2. Children then go through a Silent or nonverbal period. This stage can last from one to twelve months. If we are not aware of this stage, we might think that the child is having difficulties and consider professional intervention. This silence however, is the silence we find in the young infant, who is still absorbing his language, prior to speaking it – where an understanding of the language precedes his ability to use it. During this silence, a lot of listening is taking place, as well as acute observation of the gestures, sounds, facial expressions etc. that accompany any language. The child is trying to make sense and find meaning in this jumble of sounds and movements. If children find themselves in a safe, secure situation they will gradually start making a few attempts at speaking – combining gestures and facial expressions.
The role of the adult at this stage, is to ‘let the child be’. We need to ensure that the child finds himself in a linguistically rich environment where things are being said, exchanged, explained, sung, read, written and recounted, so that children may absorb all the sounds, structures, words, gestures etc. that they require. I have found that using images and materials to reinforce what is being said, a lot of pointing and dramatic gestures etc. all help to convey meaning to a child who is able to understand in fact, much more than what he can say. We must respect this creative silence, since we know full well that although voiceless, the child is creating his new voice, and with that will also come his identity.
3. The next phase begins when children start cracking the code of this new language, usually in a telegraphic or formulaic way i.e. they will use a few words, or phrases without understanding how they really function in order to communicate mainly action, possession or location e.g. ‘me home’ ‘I like…’ ‘Gimme…’ ‘I want… ‘. We respond to these efforts, by showing we understand and by verbalizing the complete phrase of what the child is saying. We help by repeatedly giving him these formulaic phrases, which he will quickly pick up and which will serve to communicate to others his basic needs and feelings.
4. Finally, the child comes to the Fluid Language phase, where he is able to use his second language like all surface users i.e. he becomes proficient in Social English. We find children are constantly experimenting in the use, form, sound, purpose and intent of both languages. They love to play with language and we should not worry about this trial and error phase. On the contrary we need to support and encourage the child’s attempts at speaking, accepting all the mistakes made in pronunciation, syntax and expression but ensuring that we respond using the language correctly. We help by giving all the appropriate names of objects, emphasizing key words in sentences, repeating important words in context and coordinating, where necessary, actions with language, so that we may optimize the child’s understanding capabilities, thereby enhancing his self esteem.
Receptive Bilingualism refers to children who are able to understand two languages but express themselves in only one. These are children, who have been exposed to the language prior to coming to school, through television for example, or through older siblings who may be learning English in school and may speak it amongst themselves. This is a fairly common experience for many children, although they are not considered fully bilingual.
As preschool teachers we can support parents in their work, by being aware of the different languages spoken in our environment and finding ways in which we can include these languages in our daily exchanges, without confusing our three to six year olds. We can make children aware of the languages within their school community, simply by naming them. We can encourage children to say a word – a greeting – a song – in their home language – or we can talk about a culture which a specific child can relate to – and there we often see that the child’s initial embarrassment, is coupled with a sense of pride and joy.
In all instances and across all age groups we need to show our children through our behaviour (and not through sermons) that cultural diversity enriches our interactions and enhances our existence. Bilingualism does not cause language or identity problems. The way we manage bilingualism, however, is what causes the problems. We really need to rethink and reassess the messages that our children are receiving. The microcosm of the school – the learning community – is one place where we can affect societal attitudes as regards the bilingual child, and “inferior” or “superior” cultures. We need to start talking not so much about bilingual people, but about bilingual environments.
Montessori schools can play a very important role in helping individuals and communities find their identities, and become strong. We have an educational system based on respect for all living things. One way we reflect and convey that respect to our young learners, is by encouraging them to discover the immense diversity that makes up our planet. All of life’s manifestations however great, or small reflect a diversity that is awesome. We need to cultivate and encourage in our children an attitude which does not stand in fear, but which welcomes such diversity. Such an attitude is generated, once my own little world, myself, my family, my family’s history, has found a safe place within me. Once that is secure, I can easily accommodate other little worlds, other selves, other families, other families’ histories.
Author: Irene Fafalios, Montessori Society AGM