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Paths to bilingualism: Bringing life to a family language plan

Ellie Alchin, Director of Teaching and Learning, Dover Campus
Oscar Gallego, Head of Languages A, High School Spanish and Home Languages Coordinator, East Campus
Pilar Jiménez, Head of Home Languages and Teacher of Spanish, Dover Campus
17 December 2019

Primary School Deepavali celebrations on UWCSEA Dover campus

Eowyn Crisfield, a specialist in bilingualism, language learning and teaching, and bilingual education visited UWCSEA Dover in Singapore in November to support the Colleges strategic aim to develop our capacity in this area. In this interview-style article, we share some of Eowyn's insights and information for parents in the context of UWCSEA, and how the school can work with our families to support their language learning goals.

In the first part of this interview, we explore the language profile of the UWCSEA community, look at how the College has responded to these diverse needs by providing a languages programme that has been carefully designed to provide the level of support required by all our learners and introduce some different definitions that we are considering as we further develop our language programmes, be they for home language or language acquisition. 

We then unpack, in part two, some of Eowyn's thoughts on the critical role of the family in supporting the language development of their children.

In the third and fourth parts of this interview we discuss considerations for monolingual families who wish to raise bilingual children, and then switch focus to share some of Eowyn's thinking on how bilingual families can keep home language(s) alive.

Part 1: Linguistic diversity at UWCSEA

It will come as no surprise that while UWCSEA is an ‘English medium’ school, where the main language of instruction is English, we are a multilingual community. It almost goes without saying that our community has a complex language profile. Our mission-driven admissions policy asks us to bring together as diverse a cohort as possible with the aim of promoting intercultural understanding.

Recognising that to successfully achieve our mission, we need to do more than simply enrol students with diverse backgrounds, passports and language profiles, the five-year UWCSEA strategy launched in 2018 identified further developing our capacity in Diversity and Inclusion as a key to long-term success. The increasing complexity of the language profile of our learners had already prompted the introduction of the highly regarded Home Languages Programme (HLP) on both campuses, as well as the extension of the English as an Additional Language (EAL) Programme into our Primary Schools. The work of bringing the UWCSEA Strategy to life is in furthering our understanding of, and consciously selecting and embedding, approaches to language learning that are in line with our mission and the needs of our community.

This year, part of this work on Dover Campus has meant gaining a deeper understanding of our community’s language profile so as to make better informed decisions around allocation of effort and resources. A survey, sent to Dover parents in Term 1, revealed that 58% of the respondents communicate at home in two or more languages. And that between them, the 831 families who responded (representing 1,138 of the 3,000 Dover students) speak an astounding 94 different languages at home. Further, while 42% of families only speak one language at home, that language is not always English.

Complex profiles = complex aspirations

This very complex language profile inevitably gives rise to an equally complex set of expectations around language learning. Driven by our desire to understand more fully the expectations of our community, the same survey asked parents what matters most to them (for their child’s language education), to which the top five responses were:

1. Learn a foreign language
2. Maintain a home language as well as learn English
3. Learn two foreign languages
4. Develop sensitivity in communicating with speakers of other languages
5. Study a home language within the school day instead of learning a new foreign language

There are many considerations that go into the mix of creating, maintaining and developing bilingualism in children—whether they are learning a language which is spoken at home or not. For many, the idea of learning an additional language is an exciting proposition, while others hope that their children will be able to attain a high level of competence in two or more languages—if they would only apply themselves at school, and if only the school would offer that language in the timetable for younger students.

Eowyn Crisfield, a specialist in bilingualism, language learning and teaching, and bilingual education visited Dover Campus for four days in November. Coinciding with a professional learning day, Eowyn conducted workshops and training for all teachers and, in a session with parents, shared her research-based approach to successfully raising a bilingual child. For those who were not able to attend her evening session, this interview focuses on sharing some of Eowyn’s insights and strategies for families based on our UWCSEA context.

For simplicity’s sake, Eowyn uses the term bilingual to mean two or more languages, and we have adopted this approach in this article.

Exploring definitions

For many, being bilingual carries the aspiration to ‘speak like a native—with complete fluency and an impeccable accent’, making it an ambitious aim for bilingual families raising children away from home, let alone for learners whose parents are monolingual. But some definitions are more pragmatic, incorporating both competence and functionality.

One definition, admittedly on the functional end of the scale but perhaps useful for context, comes from Carder (2007), who defined bilingualism as “the ability to understand and use two (or more) languages in certain contexts and for certain purposes.” However, with so many in our community already bilingual, it is likely that many families will be seeking what Harley (2013) and Grosjean (1997) describe as ‘productive bilingualism’, which is the ability to competently express thoughts and speech in more than one language.

Whichever definition you prefer, setting parameters looks and feels much more achievable than the lofty ‘indistinguishable from a native speaker’ aspiration, particularly for the potential bilinguist, since we learn best when we understand the reason for learning and have a realistic goal in sight.

Part 2: Family commitment comes first

Developing ‘native speaking’ proficiency in a language can be likened to developing mastery in a skill such as a musical instrument, dance style, or specific sport. It takes multiple and sustained opportunities to identify interest, experimentation to select a specialism, followed by expert instruction, continued skill development, some reflection, and many more hours of practice in all types of settings and contexts, to truly excel. And only the most motivated will pursue the skills to true mastery.
But how does mastery happen? The answer lies in intentionality. It requires identifying a goal and planning a realistic pathway to achieve it. And, if necessary, revising the goal along the way.

Which brings us to the idea of a Family Language Plan.

Family Language Plans, according to Eowyn, are not just for families with aspirations of ‘native level’ proficiency in multiple languages. While she believes it as an essential ingredient in sustained success for families with complex language profiles, Eowyn recommends all families set out a Family Language Plan, even if the goal is communicative competence in a second language. That way everyone knows what they are aiming for.

Key considerations when making a plan include:

1. Which languages do you want your children to master, and why?
2. Which level of mastery are you aiming for in each language? Are you going to be satisfied with attaining Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) or are you prepared to support your child in the long-term and far more difficult task of attaining what educators describe as Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP)?
3. Are you open to these goals changing in the future, for example if you move country?
4. Have you identified your available support network—and what else may be required to achieve your goal (i.e., schools, family members, tutors, travel)?
5. Realistically, how much time, effort and money are you willing or able to invest?

Developing bilingualism requires commitment above and beyond arranging lessons and having conversations at home and with family. Students can accomplish amazing things, provided they are supported by their families, and given multiple opportunities to learn and apply (practise!) their learning.

How can parents support their children?

Find as many ways as possible to regularly use the languages being learned, whether your child is a ‘foreign language’ learner from a monolingual background or a bilingual student who speaks multiple languages at home. Strategies and activities, based on the age and needs of the child, both in the classroom and outside, in a variety of contexts are crucial, including:

  • Talking about language to raise interest in language learning, awareness of how language functions in society and cultures, and the benefits of bilingualism
  • Encouraging a caregiver to speak to the child in the target language
  • Consuming media – reading, listening to audiobooks, or watching movies and TV shows together in the target language (subtitles on)
  • Learning the language yourself and practising it with your child
  • Arranging playdates and other social interactions with other children and families who speak the target language
  • Encouraging your child to share what they are learning, or to teach you
  • Ask them to take you through their completed language homework
  • Regular (possibly immersive) exposure during holidays – using the language in context, extending the limited settings of home and classroom, can make a big difference
  • Academic literacy skill-focused classes such as our Home Language Programme are often a key part of the support infrastructure for students from a bilingual family. Classroom instruction is, however, only one element of a successful family language plan. Even the most tailored programme is going to have limited benefit if the learner is not able to make use of the language in authentic contexts outside the classroom and the more transactional language exchanges that typify day-to-day use at home. Families who are aiming for CALP proficiency will need to create further opportunities for their child to use the language in authentic academic contexts.

Part 3: Options for monolingual families

Can children realistically become bilingual if the family only speaks one language at home?

The answer to this depends on what is meant by being bilingual and, to a large extent, the commitment outside of school that the family is able to make. Individuals who come from a monolingual family are able to become bilingual if they have enough exposure to the additional language. This is where Carder’s (2007) definition of bilingualism—“the ability to understand and use two (or more) languages in certain contexts and for certain purposes”—is likely to be more achievable, for everyone involved.

Eowyn described the need to provide a foundation of solid infrastructure and long-term, consistent support with demonstrable benefits to the learner. Because sometimes the benefit of learning another language is not as obvious to our children as it is to the adults around them!

What are some of the most effective ways for children from monolingual families to learn languages?

Immersion has proven to be very effective, but is not always possible or practical. Sending a monolingual child to a school with an immersive bilingual programme—where they study 50% of their subjects in the target language—can lead to bilingualism for students from a monolingual family. However, a variety of factors influence outcomes, including how much exposure to the language children will have outside their classroom, and how motivated the students are to learn and use the language. Because our students come to us with such diverse linguistic backgrounds and goals, immersive bilingualism is not a suitable model for UWCSEA.

How often do children need to practise a language in order to become bilingual?

This largely depends on the level of proficiency you are aiming for. Communicative ability is very different to an ability to use the language to study and communicate in an academic context.

Families who are monolingual and wish their child to become bilingual in a language they are learning at school typically find they are required to make an enormous commitment outside of formal schooling if they decide they want more than ‘communicative bilingualism’ for their child. Eowyn presented research suggesting that an individual can attain BICS-level proficiency in 1 or 2 years if they are immersed in a language. Being able to use a language at a level of CALP proficiency, where students make meaning and communicate academic tasks in the language, i.e., hypothesise, justify, classify, infer, can take between 3 and 9 years in an immersive language learning environment.

Part 4: Keeping a home language alive

Can children retain a home language(s) if much of their formal learning is in English?

Yes, those who come from a bilingual family are able to retain their bilingualism if they have enough exposure. If one parent speaks to the child consistently in one language, another speaks in another and the child speaks a third language (in the case of many UWCSEA students, English) at school, it is perfectly possible for them to grow up speaking three languages with BICS-level skills—though in reality, English may still end up being their dominant language.
Whilst they can retain communicative proficiency, children will not develop CALP proficiency in their home language without deliberate, sustained effort. This is especially challenging when they are not learning all their subjects in that language at school, or are not able to use the language in their day-to-day life outside of transactional exchanges with parents or caregivers at home.

If you could debunk one myth about learning multiple languages, what would that be?

A common misconception is that it is much better to learn languages when we are very young. While it’s true that children’s brains have a higher plasticity and it can often be easier for them to learn another language than it is for an adult, this is often expanded to encompass the notion that young children are sponges for absorbing languages and that you just need to immerse them in the right environment and expose them to as many languages as possible if you want them to grow up multilingual.

Unfortunately this belief is not supported by evidence. Humans have a finite capacity to absorb different languages, and age-appropriate proficiency in a dominant language is essential for cognitive development. A four-year-old being exposed to five languages at once is unlikely to develop age-appropriate proficiency in any of the languages.

Students can grow up to be bilingual if they are exposed to two (or even three) languages at home in the early years. The key here is ‘exposure’ to the languages. A child will not become bilingual with a couple of hours a week of exposure in a language; it requires sustained and regular opportunities to use the language.

Is it advisable to learn more than one additional language if you are already learning English and have a strong home language? Should you take the opportunity to learn another as a foreign language?

This depends entirely on the child, and on your family situation. Consider a bilingual five-year-old, who speaks Japanese and French with their parents, but who is new to English. They attend an English-medium school while in Singapore and are receiving EAL support there. If it is likely they will return to Japan in two years, Chinese lessons may not be the best option. Instead, it would be better for them to focus on learning English while maintaining Japanese and French.

Compare this situation to a Grade 11 scholar, fresh off the plane from Colombia, coming from a Spanish-speaking school where she learned English as a second language. While having to cope with all her subjects in English, which is her second language, she is eager to retain her connection to her cultural identity. For this student, it makes sense to continue to develop her Spanish at a high proficiency (which keeps open the option to return to Colombia to study) and to take English as a second language subject, rather than trying to pick up a third language.

But other bilingual students who are learning English are eager to learn a third language. For many of these EAL students, the foreign language class is the one lesson where they feel that they are at the same level as everyone else. For these students, learning a new language can be a great way for them to feel successful.

If families intend their child to study in their home language at university, what are the considerations? Is it realistic?

In order to be admitted to the university course of their choice, students need a strong CALP-level knowledge of their home language. Further, to be able to successfully move to living in their home country, they will need both communicative ability and cultural understanding to adjust to being surrounded by native speakers—perhaps for the first time in their life.

If this is a likely scenario for your family, a family language plan will help you proactively plan to keep this option open and achievable for your child. In addition to the list of support activities, some families also consider engaging conversationalists, arranging any required tutoring to be done in the home language or even planning with their child for a gap year or ‘working holiday at home’ that will enable them to hone their language skills before they start university.

Recommended further reading

Eowyn Crisfield’s blog
Baker, Colin (2014) A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism
Nacamulli, Mia. (2015) TED-Ed, The Benefits of a Bilingual Brain


Carder, M. (2007) Bilingualism in International Schools: A Model for Enriching Language Education. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters
Grosjean, F. (1997). The bilingual individual. Interpreting, 2(1-2), 163–187. doi:10.1075/intp.2.1-2.07gro
Harley, T. A. (2013). The psychology of language: From data to theory. New York: Psychology Press.