Four years ago we moved to Switzerland but I can remeber as it was yesterday the moment my daughter entered her new class for the first time, without being able to understand a word of what her teacher and her classmates were saying.
She smiled and went in with determination, but her eyes were full of worry and uncertainty.
I smiled back to her saying “goodbay” with enthusiasm, but I was telling myself “hope we’ve done the right choice”!
We move our kids to a new environment where they have to learn a new language and integrate in a different culture because we want to offer them new perspectives for their future, but this change comes together with doubts, sence of guilty and a lot of questions on how to properly support them.
That’s why I will publish in the next months some interviews with Karin Maritn, multilingualism expert focused on kids. Our aim is to provide support and information to the families that are starting the journey of growing a bilingual or multilingual kid.
In this first interview we will focus on kids moving to a new Country and learning a new language AT THE BEGINNING OF THE SCHOOL AGE.
Enjoy the interview!
HI KARIN,CAN YOU PLEASE INTRODUCE YOURSELF AND YOUR STORY?
My name is Karin, I’m Italian and I live in Austria. I work as a consultant for multilingualism: I help families who raise their children with more than one language to face the path peacefully, supporting them with practical tips, in order to understand and facilitate their children language learning.
The reasons which drives me to start this job come from far away in time. My mom is South Tyrolean and she would have loved me to learn German at the same time as I was acquiring my mother tongue, Italian. However, she was discouraged by my elementary teachers, who feared that two languages ??would cause me confusion and they would slow down my school results.
So, for a long time I felt like I was a sort of “failed bilingual”, as if I had missed my great chance to grow up with more than one language.
I studied languages ??later, first at the university and then by traveling and living in different European countries. My PhD in Linguistics and the subsequent training courses allowed me to deepen the most fascinating topic: multilingual development in children, but also adult foreign language learning and learning disorders.
In 2011 I moved to Carinthia, a very special Austrian region, at the border with Italy and Slovenia, which welcomes many international and Italian employees. I soon realized that families moving abroad with children need to be reassured about their children’s language development, they need practical assistance and they need answers based on research and not on false myths or prejudices.
So, I started collaborating with an international club and an international school. I wrote different articles on bilingualism, and then I organised a conference and a teacher training about this topic.The feedback I got was huge, the conference became later a series of thematic meetings and workshops in small groups, and then I started offering individual consultancy. Today, I offer webinars and consultancy also online.
CAN YOU GIVE US A DEFINITION OF BILINGUALISM AND MULTILINGUALISM?
I prefer to adopt the widest definition: bilingualism is the ability to express your thoughts in more than one language, and multilingualism is the ability to express your thoughts in more than two languages.
If I ask a monolingual to give me the definition of bilingualism, she will surely tell me, it’s the ability to express yourself in two different languages “perfectly”. Well, that “perfectly” sounds wired to me.
People who grow up with one language have the myth of the “perfect bilingual”, a person who does not make mistakes, who does not have an accent, as if she was two monolinguals in the same person.
But this is not the reality, because so many factors can influence language learning, starting with the age when we have our first contact with different languages. Based on these several factors, there are several “labels” we can adopt to describe bilingualism, which are necessary to do research, e.g. early bilingualism, late bilingualism, additive bilingualism, subtractive bilingualism, balanced bilingualism, and so on.
Therefore, it’s quite difficult to give a definition of bilingualism, because we should ask: how well should we know the languages ??to define bilinguals? Are we bilingual only if we start acquiring different the languages ??from birth? Are we bilingual if we moved abroad at the age of 12 and started studying a second language? Are we bilingual if our parents speak different languages ??but we choose to use only one? Are we bilingual if we work as interpreters? Multilingualism is even more complicated, because it’s important to ask also who and how often we use these languages, in what contexts and moments of our lives. For example, a child born to an Italian family, who attends an international school in English and lives in a German-speaking country will surely grow up with three languages. However, her proficiency in these languages ??may vary depending on the context and the use she’ll do during her life. For example, as far as her vocabulary is concerned, she will probably know math terms in English but not in Italian, for the mere fact that she studies math in English at school.
WHAT ARE THE MOST CRITICAL ISSUES WE SHOULD EXPET WHEN MOVING TO A FOREIGN COUNTRY WITH A CHILD IN THE SCHOOL AGE?
Considering my professional and personal experience, the crucial issues differ a lot and depend on many factors.
They depend on the country we move to and on the similarity of the new culture to our culture of origin, but they also depend on the general family attitude.
If we take into consideration children moving to a new country in their early school age, we must keep in mind a number of related issues. It’s not only about learning a new language and entering a new school context (with an organization and a value system ??other than ours). It’s also about leaving a safe, familiar and beloved place, and to fit into a new, unknown social context, which can be scary and which may not be understood at first.
Surely, one of the major concerns for a family moving abroad with children in this age group, is for them to learn the new language and to integrate into the new school reality. Many parents are wondering, how long it’ll take for their kid to learn the other language, some of them are afraid that learning two languages will confuse their child, and they wonder why she doesn’t speak after a few months. They ask themselves if their kid will be able to integrate with her school mates, other parents do not know how to help their kids, especially when they do not speak the school language themselves.
Others also wonder whether it is appropriate to teach them to read and write in their family language, because they’d love to keep their cultural roots.
These are, of course, all key issues parents should take into account, however there are at least two things on which, in my opinion, we must absolutely focus our attention when we are concerned about language learning in children: the time factor and the so called “silent period”.
. The time factor
One of the most common myths about bilingualism / multilingualism is that children are like sponges, they learn quickly and effortlessly the languages surrounding them, because they absorb them just as a sponge absorbs water. This thought is probably due to the comparison between children and adult language learning: for adults it is more complicated, it takes time, devotion and commitment.
Children, instead, seem to learn without even noticing it. Unfortunately, because of this myth we tend to be very demanding with our children and we tend to worry too quickly, if we see that after a few months our child cannot speak.
During my seminars with parents, I always underline that bilingualism is a long-term project.
Children learn faster, this is true, but quite often we do not give them the time they need, because we are too anxious. In addition, for many children, the first contact with the second language takes place on the first day of school, a day filled with new emotions, expectations and fears.
Many parents ask me, how long it takes for the child to learn the new language. There is no one-fit-all answer, because language learning is influenced by so many factors, both external factors, related to the context in which the child lives, and internal factors, such as her attitude or her need to integrate with her school mates. Many linguists suggest considering a period of about two years for the child to acquire the basic skills that will allow her to socialize and communicate with her new friends; and a period ranging from five to seven years to acquire the so-called academic-cognitive skills, i.e. the language that allows her to face higher school grades without difficulties. Anyway, I’d like to emphasize that it also depends very much on the age of first contact with the foreign language.
- The silent period
Many parents (but also many teachers who are not used to work with bilingual children) are afraid of the so called “silent period”. It is a period, which may last from a few months to a year, in which the child is in contact with the second language, but she doesn’t speak it.
Parents’ concern stems from the fact that we expect a child to absorb the language and learn it quickly, and we tend to compare ourselves with families who are in an analogous situation and whose children started to talk earlier. It is crucial to know that this phase is absolutely normal, and we should not be frustrated, some children simply need more time to “tune” into the new language context before starting to talk.
If your child looks peaceful and she continues communicating with you in the family language without problems, then there is no reason to worry. Very often, after this phase of silence, there is a kind of “communicative explosion”, the child suddenly begins to speak the foreign language without any fears. Actually, during this phase, she is learning a great deal and she understands much more than it seems. It’s like as if she’s reflecting on the new language, like a young linguist looking at this new linguistic object, before starting to use it.
HOW CAN THE FAMILY SUPPORT CHILDREN WHO LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY, ESPECIALLY IN THE FIRST PERIOD?
It is necessary to know that the family and, in particular, the family general attitude towards the multilingual growth of children, has a very important role during the early years of schooling and it may partly influence language learning.
Children, indeed, can perceive their parents’ fears and insecurities, but they have all the tools to deal with this path. The family can facilitate children’s language learning in many ways: first of all, by maintaining a positive and trusting attitude towards their children: all children are born with the extraordinary ability to learn more than one language, so let’s give them the time they need to do it. It is crucial to create a positive relationship between the home language (or home languages) and the school language.
There are several practical tips that can be followed, I chose three of them:
- Create as many contacts with the new language as possible, even before the school begins. Go to a playground, look for playgroups or sport groups, where communication is not crucial, because children learn by playing, having fun and without the anxiety of being evaluated or judged.
- Build a bridge between school and family. Your child should feel that her parents are proud of the progress she is making in learning the second language. Get in touch with the teachers and ask them about your child’s improvements, try to get to know other moms, take part in after-school activities. Try even if you do not know the language because the important thing is to show interest! Appreciate every little effort and result of your child, control her homework even if you do not understand the language. Emphasize and praise what your child already knows, rather than what she still needs to learn.
- Make room for the new language in your home and family. If you do not speak the language of your host country, sign up for a course and consider learning the new language as a game that involves the whole family. Remember that the first language works as a facilitator for learning the second. If you think it’s necessary, you can write a list of useful words for the school start in your family language and try to translate them together with your child, you can also make a list for the teacher. Make space for the second language in your child’s room, where you can put new books. You can start leafing through them or even read them together, you’ll see: your child will soon read the book for you and correct your pronunciation mistakes.
If you’ve just moved to a new country and are facing doubts and fears of growing bilingual kids we hope we’ve given you useful insights.
Thank you Karin for your enthusiasm and the expertise you’ve shared with us.
If you would like to follow Karin or get in contact with her, here you can find her web site:
and her Facebook page: