What is bilingual education?

The other day, fellow non-native bilingual mum and blogger, Pilar Vera, published a wonderful post about the people advocating against non-natives rearing bilingual (post in Spanish:“¿Cómo hablo inglés no nativo con mis hijos? ¿Cómo expreso mis sentimientos? + OPINIONES EN CONTRA”).

Pilar expressed simply but effectively the fact that the decision belongs to the parents only, and that it should be respected and not judged, especially on the web.  She also raised a misconception I have often read and heard from other bilingual mums: many (usually monolingual) people seem to think we are pressuring our kids with formal teaching to get them to learn the minority language (ml).

So here is my meagre contribution to bust that misconception and putting things as they really are:

What is Bilingual Education exactly?

Let’s go back to basics for those unfamiliar with the topic.  Bilingual education is primarily about passing on a language orally, often from birth though not always, in a playful and natural manner.

In some families, it is done through living their day-to-day life in that minority language (that is my family’s case).  In other families, it is done through certain activities; e.g: bath time (that is the case of one of my colleagues), or a regular playtime in the target language (one of my other colleague’s strategy).

As the child grows, parents might contemplate biliteracy.  In this case, they will get their child to develop their literacy skills in their minority language through activities of all sorts that will grab their attention:

  • Teaching them to read in the ml (and later on to write),
  • Workbooks
  • Activity sheets
  • Weekly ml homework sessions.
  • Reading
  • Writing their own stories 
  • Having a pen-pal

However, at that stage the “teaching” has nothing to do with hours of boring classes, sitting behind a school desk, like some might picture.  Given the ml does not have the same social status as the Majority Language, it is already delicate to entice their interest, so “formally teaching” them a language like a school teacher would be the last thing we would want to do, as it would most definitely put them off language learning! We will always try to make it short and wherever possible use fun activities the kids enjoy; e.g: a game of scrabble, crosswords, hangman or word ladders to work on spelling.  We will work towards developing their taste for reading, look for pen-pals and maybe if circumstances allow (we do not all have this opportunity) send them to a formal Saturday class in the minority language. But that is usually when they are older and have got the interest of being bilingual, hence when they might be willing to actually work on it.

In any case, Bilingual Education has a simple foundation stone: communication.  The aim is never to force language learning onto our child like it would be in an academic set-up.  It is a primary act of loving communication and interaction, just like any monolingual parent does with their child in a single language.  And remember that love is not expressed exclusively through words, but through tender gestures and interactions. And children can feel that, regardless of the language.

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