Bilingualism and Children
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Bilingualism and Children

How do we define bilingualism?

A bilingual person can be defined as someone who can use two languages with reasonable proficiency. There are varying degrees of bilingualism. Children can become bilingual in two ways.

  • Simultaneous bilingualism – when a child learns two languages at the same time.
  • Successive bilingualism – when a child already speaks one language, then learns to speak another.

For young children it is very important that the first language is supported and encouraged to develop, in order that it can support the learning of the second language. Learning a new language can take time and the child may be silent for a period . This ’silent period’ can vary from one child to another.

There is no question about the important benefits of being able to learn and maintain more than one language. The benefits of bilingualism include:

Intellectual

  • The ability to learn additional languages.
  • Increased intellectual capacity in other academic areas.

Social

  • Understanding of linguistic diversity. 
  • All children learn that there is more than one way to speak, read and write.
  • Children grow up in a harmonious and diverse society, where difference is the norm.
  • Children are able to communicate and maintain their relationships with family members who may not speak English.    

Cultural

  • Pride and confidence in cultural and linguistic heritage and identity.
  • Important family and cultural values and are maintained and shared with future generations.

Economic

  • Employment, education and social opportunities in later life.

Being bilingual is an asset, not a problem.

Children who are learning to speak a second language may display a range of behaviours. Some may remain silent and refuse to participate, others will adapt more quickly. Children who are learning English as a Second Language are also often mistakenly assessed as having ‘language problems’ if their English language does not emerge quickly. All children growing up in Australia and attending Australian schools will learn English at their own pace.

Bilingualism is not a learning difficulty, but a learning process.

Many parents experience anxiety about their children being excluded or disadvantaged if they cannot speak English before they start kindergarten. In some cases parents and children are discouraged from speaking their home language and told to speak English only. Many primary schools offer English language support classes for children from Non English Speaking Backgrounds (NESB). Insist that your child continue to maintain your home language as well as being supported to learn English.

Home languages will be lost forever.

Unless children are continuously encouraged to speak in their home language whilst they are learning English, as they get older they are likely to lose proficiency in their home language or they become reluctant to speak it at all. It is important to support children to feel good about their bilingualism.

Languages learning is a social activity and happens in different cultural environments.

Our responses to difference can have a lasting affect on all children, but especially children from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds, who are learning English as a Second Language. If your children are made to feel uncomfortable about speaking their home language outside of the home, they may learn to be ashamed of and resistant to maintaining it. This can also effect the way they feel about themselves, their family and their cultural identity in the future.

Children develop a strong sense of identity and well-being when their learning environment responds positively to difference and diversity, and actively promotes their bilingualism.

Acknowledgements: Dr Criss Jones Diaz, Senior Lecturer University of Western Sydney, Belonging, Being and Becoming; The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF)

 

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