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Tongues untied: bilingual basics for teachers

Are your preschoolers mixing their English Ps and French Qs? Read on, because, when it comes to young, bilingual kids, both parents and teachers have important roles to play, said Mark Antoniou of the MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour & Development at Western Sydney University.

Regarding preschools for bilingual toddlers, a bilingual approach is best. And for such schools, alternate immersion – in which one language is spoken for instruction for one part of the day and another for the rest – is ideal, said Antoniou.

This approach complements the recommended ‘balanced exposure’ for learning two languages. However, researchers Krista Byers-Heinlein and Casey Lew-Williams have pointed out that some experts advise teachers to pay extra attention to the language that is not the vernacular. The two researchers state in their 2013 article Bilingualism in the Early Years: What the Science Says, published in the journal LEARNing Landscapes, that encouraging play in the minority language is helpful for children at an earlier developmental stage to ensure proficiency in both tongues later on.

Along with balanced exposure, Antoniou stressed the importance of phonological awareness: the ability to “detect and manipulate sound structure of words”. The importance of this awareness applies equally to monolingual children but it is important that, for bilingual youngsters, it is taught in both languages.

When it comes down to the basics, it is quality and quantity that matter, Byers-Heinlein and Lew-Williams wrote. Quality entails language use in social interactions, preferably with several speakers. This has been associated with vocabulary enhancement. Quantity refers to “the number of words that children hear per day in each language”, the authors stated.

Preschools, such as that of the German International School in Sydney, have taken up research-approved approaches to teaching bilingualism. GIS has an immersion program, in which “children are exposed to both languages during the day in authentic and meaningful situations and within warm, empathetic human relationships”, said head of preschool Silke Bethke. She added she was “appalled” by the ‘quick fix’ Australian Government ELLA program that aims to determine whether children can learn a second language solely via an iPad app.

Yet what if, with immersive, quality strategies in place, bilingual children still struggle to keep pace with the rest of the preschool class? First up, check they’re genuinely struggling. Code mixing, in which the two languages are mixed in the same sentence, is a normal part of bilingual development, not the slip up it might sound like, Byers-Heinlein and Lew-Williams maintained.

Also, be wary of vocabulary misnomers. It is a myth that bilingual children know fewer words, said Kevin Wong, PhD student in literacy education at New York University, writing in the Huffington Post. Bilingual kids know the same number of words, but these are split across two languages. If anything, Antoniou argued, bilingual children have broader lexicons, “because they’re going to have some unique words in language one, some unique words in language two, and a bunch of words that are overlapping”.

On the flipside, the common adage that bilingual children are cognitively advanced remains unproven, though further research is being undertaken in this area, Byers-Heinlein and Lew-Williams said. “So far, bilingual cognitive advantages have been demonstrated only using highly sensitive laboratory-based methods, and it is not known whether they play a role in everyday life,” they explained.

Nevertheless, bilingual preschools seem to be gaining popularity. Bethke noticed an increase in enrolments at GIS by parents from non-German speaking backgrounds. Antoniou is pleased with this general development. “Given where we are in Australia at the moment, I think it’s very positive,” he said. “Because the government recognises that speaking the languages of our key trading partners is important to unlocking Australia’s economic potential.”

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