Will learning in two languages slow your child down? What if your child isn't doing well at school, or has learning difficulties? Sometimes parents of bilingual children tend to look at bilingualism as a possible cause of their child's lack of success at school, whether the child has language, educational, motivational or social problems.
Bilingualism is often popularly seen as causing cognitive confusion - reducing a child's ability to understand things and develop. Sometimes people picture the bilingual brain as two engines working at half throttle! But this isn't true. Where two languages are well developed, bilingualism is more likely to lead to cognitive advantages rather than disadvantages.
So don't rush to blame bilingualism - it's often not the cause at all. It's wise first to examine other possible causes: the standard of teaching, the school environment, the child's motivation or personality or causes at home. All too often, bilingualism will be wrongly blamed for whatever problem occurs.
- English-speaking children
When English language children are educated in Welsh, the evidence tends to suggest that their achievement does not suffer in school: indeed the opposite. Their English is not under threat, nor is their self-esteem, status nor academic competence. In a positive bilingual environment, English language children benefit from bilingual schooling without negative effects on their achievement. There may be a temporary lag when the child is learning a second language - research from Canada suggests that any such lag between around six and 10 years old is only temporary.
It is important, though, that parents and school ensure that a child's language development is sufficiently advanced for them to be able to cope with an increasingly complex conceptual level in the curriculum once they go to senior school. In the early years of primary education, the language complexity of the classroom makes relatively few demands on the child's language skills. As a child proceeds through school, there is a removal of actions, physical demonstrations and less body language. Learning is increasingly through abstract words and ideas. Therefore, the bilingual child's language has to be matched to the complexity level of the curriculum in the classroom. This either means ensuring that the child has sufficiently well developed language to cope in the curriculum, or the teacher needs to adapt to the language level of the child, encouraging language development while making sure that over-complex and over-abstract curriculum learning is not introduced too early.
- Welsh-speaking children
Sometimes, a lack of exposure to English is blamed if a Welsh-speaking child is under-achieving. Students are said to have insufficiently developed English language skills to cope with the curriculum. Again, this is usually wrong. When a Welsh-speaking child is taught the curriculum mainly in their first language, evidence suggests that success results - and this success includes becoming fluent in English. To convert them quickly to English would do more harm than good, and force them to replace existing language skills unnecessarily.
Another reason given when bilingual children under-achieve is a mismatch between home and school - not just in language but in culture, values and beliefs. In the past, Welsh-speaking families were expected to adjust to the system, and raise their children in the English language. The view today is generally that, where practical, the school system should be flexible enough to incorporate the home language and culture. By bilingual education, through including parents in running the school, by involving parents as partners and participants in their child's education, the so-called 'mismatch' can become a merger. A school should not create the sense that a child is being culturally assimilated into an English-language world.
- Further education and vocational education
At the moment, provision of Welsh-medium further education is small and does not meet demand, except in the Welsh-speaking areas of the north west. But the new emphasis on bilingualism in workplaces is increasing students' awareness of the value of bilingual education, and thus increasing both demand and supply. Vocational courses through the medium of Welsh are slowly becoming available in response to student and employer demand.
- Children with special needs
If a child is diagnosed with a major emotional or language problem, moving from two languages to one is sometimes seen as a way to help improve the child's development by reducing their learning 'burden' - even when parents and professionals accept that bilingualism is not the cause of a child's problem.
But in practice, this can have the affect of changing the context (bilingualism) while not actually addressing the root cause of the problem, which may remain undetected. For example, if a child is exhibiting temper tantrums, seems slow to speak without an obvious cause or seems low in self-esteem, dropping one language is unlikely to have any effect. On the contrary, the sudden change in family life may in fact exacerbate the problem: if the language in which they've been cared for, loved and played-with suddenly changes, it can make them feel that the very nature of that love and caring has changed. An overnight switch can have painful outcomes as the familiar family language disappears and the child may feel very insecure.
In most cases, it is inappropriate to move from two languages to one. However, every child and every family is different, and there can be no hard and fast rules. In some cases, it may be sensible to concentrate on developing the stronger language. Stuttering (stammering) is one example where occasionally the temporary dropping of a weaker language may help to move the child through a transitory stage of cognitive difficulty.
If it's decided that a temporary move to one language is necessary, which should you use? Sometimes, parents, teachers and education administrators will want to accent English because they perceive it to be more important. But it is far more important that the child's anchor language is retained: if their mother tongue is Welsh, keep to Welsh. Even if the child is slow to develop in their first language, stick with it.
Any temporary move to one language won't be the only solution - the root cause of the problem needs to be found, and a package of different measures will probably be called for, working with speech therapists, or clinical or educational psychologists. Make sure they have experience of working with bilingual children.
If language delay disappears, it's then possible to re-introduce the second language, especially if it can be associated with positive experiences, rather than a source of disturbance. Be vigilant that language doesn't become associated in the child's mind with anxiety, complications or unhappiness.For information on Welsh medium special needs education, see the report on Acknowledging Need - A survey of Welsh medium and bilingual provision for pupils with special educational needs in Wales (2002). It's available on the website www.bwrdd-yr-iaith.org.uk
Children aged 7-14 who move into the Welsh-speaking 'heartland' areas of Wales may need to catch up on their Welsh language skills so they can join a Welsh medium school. Sometimes local authorities provide language centres for latecomers, where pupils can be taught for several months before they go to the Welsh medium school. Teaching is based on language immersion methods and class sizes are very small.
Pre-school Welsh medium education
Welsh medium education for pre-school years is provided in the main by Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin (MYM) - the Welsh Medium Nursery Association. Since the 1970s, MYM has received a substantial yearly government grant, partly in recognition of its pioneering work in early years bilingualism.
Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin aims to promote the physical, social, linguistic, cultural, educational and emotional development of children under five years old, through the medium of Welsh.
Through a network of almost 1000 units (cylchoedd), MYM provides extra Welsh language experience for children from Welsh speaking homes, and Welsh language acquisition for children from English speaking homes.
- 578 pre-school playgroups or 'nursery circles', cylchoedd meithrin. In areas of Wales where a high proportion of the children attending the cylch meithrin are English speakers, teachers use language immersion techniques to introduce the Welsh language to children.
- 403 'Ti a Fi' circles (parent and toddler groups - literally 'You and I Circle'). Here parents/guardians can enjoy playing with their children and socialising in an informal Welsh atmosphere. Non-Welsh speaking parents can learn Welsh alongside their children.
In Wales as a whole, the average provision is one cylch to every potential 256 pre-school children, and one cylch for every potential 50 Welsh speaking children.
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