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On Raising Multilingual Children: Multilingual Specialist Eowyn Crisfield Visits ASH

At ASH, we believe that language is central to learning, and that all teachers are responsible for the language development of their students. We also believe in the benefits of parents’ active involvement in the development of their child’s language profile, in partnership with the school, to further enrich the student experience.

Last week, ASH hosted Eowyn Crisfield, an internationally renowned specialist in multilingualism and education. Eowyn spent time with both our faculty and our parents, examining the challenges children face as multilinguists and what this means for their education. These sessions were incredibly valuable both from an educator’s and from a parenting perspective, and it is having speakers such as Eowyn’s visit that makes up an important part of our unique #ASHexperience.

What are the challenges facing multilingual children in education?
Eowyn identified three crucial elements for what it takes for a child to learn a language:
  • Time (how much exposure to language and time using it)
  • Energy (the amount of energy spent on learning the language)
  • Motivation (how motivated the child is themselves to learn the language)
It is important that each of these elements is nurtured and supported, in order for a child to become confident in the languages they are learning. It is also important to keep in perspective how long it actually takes to learn a language. Eowyn defined this as one to two years for basic interpersonal communication (e.g., playing with other kids, basic expression). But for cognitive academic language proficiency, it can take anywhere from three to nine years based on each individual child.

This can be influenced by many different things and it is a common concern for parents how the ‘mother tongue’ language can affect learning other languages. Eowyn is a proponent for using the term ‘home languages’ (languages spoken most at home) and dominant language (the language the child is most fluent in - which can change over time). She suggests setting goals for language growth in order to develop a language plan. Examples of goals could be:
  • Basic communication (e.g., speaking English with just grandma - ground level acquisition)
  • Basic literacy (can read, speak, etc. at a middle-level acquisition)
  • Academic literacy (can study at a high level in the language - top-level acquisition)
No matter what the goal, Eowyn emphasized that the home languages should never be stopped as these are the languages of the heart. Meaning, it helps a child connect to a part of you that is natural when speaking your mother tongue, it helps them identify who they are in a cultural lense and keeps the door open to future language growth in that language. It also ensures that the child will continuously grow and develop their language base so they do not have a lapse in cognitive development. For example, if French is spoken at home by a child for four years, the child is fluent in French at a four-year-old level. If at this point, they attend an English-only school, and French at home is ceased, the level of French is frozen at the level of a four year old when the child is now five and their level of English is only at the level of a one or two year old, reducing both language and cognitive development.

It is also important to keep in mind that when a multilingual child is at school they wear two hats. One is the language learner hat and the other is the concept learner hat; meaning they go back and forth all day either trying to learn the language and/or trying to learn the concept or theme. The best thing parents can do to help their children is by talking with them about the themes from school in their home languages. This means they can potentially spend more time in one of the “hats” while at school, rather than switching rapidly back and forth between the “hats” all day.

The main take away from Eowyn’s visit is that multilingualism is a process, not a product - it takes time, effort and motivation, so patience is key.

For more resources and guidance we refer you to our high school library’s libguides here or visit Eowyn’s blog here.
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American School of The Hague