By Teresa Gomez, Communications and Marketing

23 May 2017 - 10:53


Bilingualism: the sooner, the better!

Myths about bilingualism and keys on how to educate children in various different languages

Despite the fact that currently more than 50% of the European Union is bilingual, myths still abound around bilingualism. Myths such as: it confuses children, that it doesn't allow them to distinguish between the different languages which they speak and that it even delays language development. Two experts in the field, Kati Szeless y Raymonde Sneddon discredited these theories at the 5th Bilingualism in Early Ages Day, organised by the British Council School. They also demonstrated the social and cognitive advantages of children learning a second language, as young as posible

One of the most common mistakes when we speak about bilingualism in Early Ages, is to think that it might result in the delay of language development in children. This is a mistake which often leads many parents to believe that, children should manage to cope with one language, before starting to learn another.

Both Kati Szeless and Raymonde Sneddon are bilingual and recognised as experts in the field of language learning and teaching. They both agreed on the importance of starting to teach a small child, a second, or even a third language, as early as possible. They illustrated this by highlighting important initiatives, such as the Bilingual Baby Club. This is a new British Council School programme aimed at children between the ages of 14 and 36 months. Parents accompany their children and together, using games, they start to practice English in a safe and well resourced environment.

“I believe its just perfect, it offers exactly what the children need” explained Kati Szeless. “Obviously what is ideal, is if both parents speak both languages at home. In that way, children are much more exposed to English. But, even if that isn't the case, there is a always another option. It's just about a way of structuring learning in the childs' second or third language and starting as soon as possible. According to Kati, children are able to distinguish between two different languages by the time they are 4 days old. She points out that: “when you start to listen to the sound of a different language and start to learn in a structured way, using a specific language at a specific time, it's just a great way of starting children and parents learning together, a great example of how to raise a child, bilingual.

Raymonde Sneddon also agreed on the importance of starting with children “as early as possible” and also praised the work of teachers for their interaction with the children. But these should always bear in mind parents and advise them on how to also develop skills at home”.

For teachers as well as parents, Sneddon advises as much interaction with the children as posible. “Above all, it's about turning language into a game and finding activities or telling stories to grab the atention of the little ones. Stories are very useful because they often have an easy, repetitive structure to encourage little children to join in, to also tell the story and to take part.”

Dismanteling myths

Bilingual children are not super intelligent, nor do they necessarily come from privileged social backgrounds; nor do they suffer any delay in speech development, nor do they absorb languages just merely by listening to them.

Despite all the recent research and evidence pointing to a variety of advantages. bilingualism still faces all sorts of myths and urban legends. Speaking at the British Council School, Kati Szeless dismantled these strange notions, talking about her own personal experience, she is bilingual English-Hungarian. And also as a professional, she is a primary language consultant and a national adviser on foreign language teaching.

And bilingualism is by no means a rarity, the opposite is true. Szeless explained that in fact, there are now more children in the world who can speak two languages, rather than just one. She also directed the persistence of such myths to “certain western cultures who still tend to remain monolingual. In the UK, for example it is very difficult for adults to recognise the need to speak anothrer language, because everybody else speaks English.” This is thanfully changing as students who travel abroad, often bring back with them the experience of having learnt another language.

Kati Szeless, summarised some of the best known research which shows that bilingual children have a more flexible and active brain and therefore better cognitive skills than monolinguals. “In essence, it doesn't matter which languages you speak. What is important is that you can speak in a different language from your mother-tongue. We are starting to recognise that it is not just the value in the language itself, but all the other benefits derived from bilingualism or multilingualism. Bilingual children have better concentration, are better able to discard information which is not useful, and they have a greater ability to analyse and solve mathematical and logic problems. When they switch between languages, they have to first decide which language is most appropriate at that moment. Children can reach these decisions from a very early age and this happens whether they are speaking those, most predominant languages or those, more minority ones. As regards the cognitive advantages, all languages have the same value.”

It is also not true that children can just absorb a language by watching TV. “In order to learn a language, consistency and structure are vital” she explained. “And one also needs to adapt the learning of the language to the stage of development children are at. Bilingualism at a very young age is characterised by cumulative ability, not determined by the speed at which the language is acquired. At first, children hear it and learn to distinguish the sound, then they start to babble words, then they make short sentences, and so on progressively. That's why Szeless recommended parents should be constant and that they should structure their children's education around a second, or even a third language. “It may be that both parents will speak both languages or each in a different one. But the key is not to feel dissapointed if you don't see immediate results, or even if the child does not reply in the same language. One has to keep going, because language will slowly settle in the brain and will come out sooner or later”.

Books in Two Languages

Raymonde Sneddon, has been a teacher and a teacher-trainer at East London University for over 30 years and during these last few years she has specialised in working with bilingual children, their families and their communities. More specifically, she has analysed how children learn by using books in two different languages. Her studies show that these children, far from getting confused by using two different languages, instead show a far higher level of reading comprehension in English: She concluded that “bilingual children, develop their learning quicker because the skills they develop in using two different languages, they take across to other subjects as well”.

Sneddon has worked with bilingual children in Primary who have English as the dominant language but who are also learning to read and write in the family's own language and are using books in both. “The mothers and children use both texts to transfer skills from one language to the other: they discuss the meaning in both languages; they compare reading skills and how these vary according to the language being learnt (Albanian, Turkish, French or Urdu)', she explained. According to her research, this practice has a very beneficial impact on the confidence of the children, on their personal identity as bilinguals in a multi-cultural British society and on their progress in learning English.

Sneddon also encourages parents to take advantage of the strong emotional impact of languages. “if the children can relate it to something personal, for example to the relationship with their grandparents, to something which makes them treasure memories, it can become something very gratifying. For example, making small photo books, “My Day with Grandfather”, telling simple stories about what grandad did, they can then, show these. It makes them feel very proud and they learn almost without noticing they are doing so”. In her opinion, from an emotional intellgence point of view, all languages are the same, as far as brain development goes. “The emotional intelligence point is something that I have learned from the children. Maintaining their own language at home is not just about acquiring knowledge or about it being practical, it's also something very valuable, which they feel they have to maintain”.