I always wanted my son to be bilingual. My partner and I are both Polish, and we live in England. The question facing us, like so many other parents in the UK who speak English as a second language, was how to actually manage to teach him two languages at once.
The received wisdom is that you speak to your child in your mother tongue, and expect them to learn English out in the community and in school. It’s a common method, advised by professionals and with its own name – the “Minority Language at Home” technique. Sounds like a perfect solution, right?
The problem is that it doesn’t work if your aim is to prepare your child for their life in the society and make sure that he or she can comprehend the community language from day one in school. Research studies of bilingualism experts such as Barbara Zurer Pearson, Prof. Fred Genessee, or Dr Elin Thordardottir show that a child needs to be exposed to each language for a minimum of 20-30% of the time when they’re awake, and ideally up to 40 or 50%.
Even more pressure on stressed-out new parents
Any mum could tell you that spending 30-50% of your baby’s awake time outside the home is nearly impossible. This 30-40% should be filled in with meaningful activities and interaction in the language, so obviously as much as TV and watching videos can help, they wouldn’t be enough. I could join playgroups (there are two or three in my area, each giving me two hours per week of being in touch with native English speakers), or I could be driving to the nearby library, where once a week for an hour we could sing along nursery rhymes and listen to native-speaking mums who read stories aloud.
I could also go more often to playgrounds, for walks (of course, only the ones in a company of an English-speaking person would count), or meet my English-speaking friends. But, to be honest, at that time I didn’t have many friends at all. We had moved to the town shortly before Ka was born, and anyway, I felt quite shy about laying bare my far-from-perfect English language skills, so I wasn’t very chatty.
This was my reality, and it wasn’t very encouraging. Besides, I knew that even if I managed to fit in all those plans and activities, anyway I wouldn’t be able to reach the damn 40% or even 30%. As a new mother, I had a lot to do besides searching out English experiences for Ka, and the point was that he had to interact in the language, not me. As much as drinking a cup of coffee with new friends might have been a nice experience for me, at this time my little son probably would just crawl around with other babies and toddlers, so me chatting with other mums would be unlikely to benefit him to the point where he would achieve the same language proficiency as in our minority language.
TOO MANY CHILDREN START SCHOOL WITH POOR ENGLISH
These problems beset many families, where both parents speak a foreign language. And this may be why so many children start school knowing little or no English at all. In state primary education in 2016 there were 20,1% of children with a language “known or believed to be known” other than English, which is nearly a million boys and girls between 5 and 11 years.
There are no good figures on how many of these children speak little or no English, but numbers are high enough to be a challenge for teachers who constantly are seeking ways to support children with English as an Additional Language. The recent findings of The Casey Review confirm that speakers of English as an Additional Language still perform “less well than the average across all Key Stages”. After all, how can one perform at school well if they cannot fully comprehend the language, in which they are being educated? According to the Canadian Professor Jim Cummins, it may take from five up to seven years to catch up in academic language. Seems like a waste of time for the little learner.
What was I supposed to do, then, an immigrant mother, who wanted her child to speak and comprehend English at school just like his peers, from day one?
I knew that just speaking Polish to him at home wouldn’t be enough, so I decided to try something new.
Mixing it up
A method suggested by Professor Francois Grosjean, a well-known specialist in bilingualism and biculturalism is, what he calls, “home – outside the home” strategy and means that one of the parents has to communicate with the child in his or her second language so that everyone is using just one language at home. Professor claims that “not knowing a language perfectly well and having an accent in it is not a reason for not speaking that language to a child”.
Professor Annick De Houwer, based on her study of over 2000 families noticed that children were most likely to become bilingual (i.e. speak both the minority and the majority languages) in two family situations: where both parents spoke the minority language and presumably followed the typical Minority Language at Home (97%) and where one parent spoke both the minority and the majority languages and the other parent spoke only the minority language. In the latter case, the percentage of children who became bilingual was 93%. I decided that this 4% was worth risking if it meant that right from the start my child could get a chance to speak and comprehend both Polish and English and begin school with the same language abilities as his British peers.
According to data from 2013, only 34% of White Other (other than British or Irish) and Pakistani pupils entitled to Free School Meals achieved a good level of development and, as Professor Steve Strand explains, “the results for Pakistani pupils, as for White Other groups, are related to the high number of pupils [speaking English as a second language] within these two groups.”
HIS ENGLISH IMPROVED, AND SO DID MINE
Over six years ago, then, I made a plan, set the rules, and for the next three years I played a role of a parent who at times spoke in Polish, and at other times in English, depending on what day and time it was. It was my only way to ensure that my son received enough exposure to both languages to be well prepared for school. The most amazing thing was how quickly my child got used to it. Not knowing how to read the clock or the calendar, he just relied on the language he heard and communicated accordingly.
I considered my language skills to be good enough to introduce English to a baby or a toddler but I didn’t want to pass on my language errors. My second language is still full of faults and all those years ago, it was much worse (actually, it started to improve thanks to my three years’ practice when five days a week for a number of hours I communicated with my little son only in English).
For this reason, I set the time frame for my English language introduction and I based it on the fact that children’s language for the first three years of their lives is still quite basic. Only around their third birthday they start to develop more complex phrases with multiple words, this is also the time when they begin to be more grammar conscious, which naturally requires better language skills from a parent.
This is why, shortly after my son’s third birthday I stopped this dual language introduction and after I had registered him at preschool I switched to just speaking Polish at home. After all, this is a great method to reinforce the heritage language.
As a pre-schooler, Ka could already fluently communicate with others. Today, he is nearly 6.5, he speaks, reads, and writes both in Polish and English equally well. As a proud bilingual, he’s recently started to learn Mandarin “because he loves to learn languages”. I think this answers the question whether it was worth to try a new approach to introduce the community language.