Does it matter if a bilingual child only actively uses one language? [Transcript]

January 18, 2022


Sharon Unsworth: Welcome to Kletsheads, the podcast about bilingual children. My name is Sharon Unsworth, linguist at Radboud University in Nijmegen in the Netherlands, and mother of two bilingual children. In this episode of Kletsheads, we’re talking about what for many parents in bilingual families could be quite a frustrating situation: children who understand both of their languages but only actively use one of them, typically the same language that they use at school. We talk about the extent to which this matters for their bilingual language development, and I give you my top tips to help maintain children’s minority or heritage language. In Let’s Klets! we speak to Ellen-Rose Kambel from the Rutu Foundation about the Language Friendly School. And our Kletshead of the Week is the 19-year-old Thorwen. He’s from the Netherlands but spent most of his childhood in Hong Kong and he tells us how his parents bribed him to go to Dutch school with pancakes. Keep listening to find out more.

Sharon Unsworth: I speak to my children in English and, in general, they speak English back to me. Sometimes, though, they prefer to use Dutch and we find ourselves having a very bilingual conversation. I’m sure this situation is one which many parents listening will recognize. We spoke in an earlier episode of Kletsheads about language mixing and how it’s a completely normal part of being bilingual. Nevertheless, bilingual conversations where mum or dad speak one language, and the children consistently reply in another, usually the language they speak at school, can be quite a source of frustration for many parents. You consistently speak Italian, German or Polish to your daughter, and she only speaks the school language back to you. Or the grandparents come to visit from Italy or Germany or Poland, and your son refuses to speak to them in their language, even though he knows that they don’t understand the other one. For many parents, such situations are both frustrating and uncomfortable. But what should you do? If you find yourself in such a situation as a parent, is it time to sacrifice your desire to raise your child bilingually for the sake of better communication? Or should you persevere and carry on regardless? Aside from any personal frustrations you might have, does it actually matter if a bilingual child only actively uses one of his or her languages? In this episode of Kletsheads, we talk about language use with Erika Hoff, researcher at Florida Atlantic University in the United States. During our conversation, we talk about the minority language. By this, we mean the language that’s not spoken at school. So in the Netherlands, it means the non-Dutch language and the examples I just mentioned, then that would be Italian, German or Polish in the research that Erika talks about, which was carried out in the US, the minority language is Spanish, the majority language, in that case, is English. And here in the Netherlands, it’s, of course, Dutch. I started by asking Erika whether it actually matters if your child always answers in the majority language, even when you speak the minority language.

Erika Hoff: We have pretty clear evidence from studying the Spanish-English bilingual children in Florida that you need to speak a language to become a competent speaker of that language. Children who only hear the language but don’t use it are likely to develop the ability to understand the language, but not to speak it. And if we look at adults, young adults who grew up in a Spanish-English bilingual home, a very common pattern of bilingualism is what is called passive bilingualism. So these are young adults who grew up hearing English and Spanish, and as adults, they will say, “Well, I understand Spanish, but I don’t speak it.” And I think they’re right. They don’t speak it because we see even the beginnings of that in three- to five-year-old children. That is, the children who use English more will be much better at their comprehension skills in Spanish than their expressive skills. It’s a common profile of bilingual proficiency that in the minority language, the children… Well, if you look at their two languages, they’re pretty balanced bilinguals and their ability to understand. But if you look at their ability to speak, they are much stronger in the majority language and weaker in the minority language.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. So here, for example, I often hear from students in my classes who come from the south of the country where parents maybe speak dialect to them. Well, dialect or language, it depends on your perspective, but Limburgs. For example, they say they understand it perfectly, but they can’t speak it themselves.

Erika Hoff: And it’s an interesting pattern because there’s no such thing in monolingual development as people who only understand their one language don’t speak it. And I think we have some pretty good evidence that one factor that contributes to that is this pattern that we see very early on of children preferring to speak the majority language and making choices at home. Whether their parents like their choices or not, their children are making choices to use the majority language.

Sharon Unsworth: Arguably something you need to get used to as a parent. Right. Not being happy with your children’s choices.

Erika Hoff: That’s a bigger question.

Sharon Unsworth: So what? So I can imagine, you know, if you’re a parent listening, you might be thinking, “Oh, well, what can I do?” Do you have any tips for what you can do as a parent to encourage your child to speak the language more?

Erika Hoff: There are books written by parents who have successfully and proudly raise bilingual children, and some of them will have rules about language use that they enforce at home. And I don’t doubt that this is helpful for their children’s bilingual development. I worry about the consequences for a normal parent-child interaction. I think if someone did that to me, I would be less inclined to initiate conversation and, in my opinion as a developmental psychologist, is that you don’t want to do anything to discourage your children from talking to you. So then what do you do? You can either accept that you’re bilingual child is not going to be two monolinguals in one brain.

Sharon Unsworth: Well, we could argue that that’s never the case.

Erika Hoff: That’s right. But if you want to encourage the development of the ability also to speak the language, my best guess is that the way to do this is to put the child in circumstances where everybody else is a monolingual speaker of the other language. And what they do a little bit with the grandparents who are visiting, they would not persist in doing if they were immersed in the other language. Right, now, those circumstances can be difficult to arrange, so it’s easier to give that advice than perhaps to implement it. But I think it’s good advice if you can manage it. And just as an anecdote, I have someone who works for me, who’s from Peru and she wants her children to be Spanish-English bilingual, and she took her children to Peru to visit the family that’s still there, but she took both of the children. And so they just spoke English to each other. What she decided she needs to do, and I think correctly, is take one child at a time because you really… It is human nature to do what’s easier. And what we see is the more dominant in English the children become, the more they do this, refusing or selectively choosing to speak only English.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think kids are just like adults, right? They want to take the easy route. And I think your example there shows also that parenting bilingual children needs a bit of an effort sometimes, I think. You do need to think about it to try and make certain things happen. I think there’s no golden recipe.

Erika Hoff: Yes, actually, I’ll quote a friend of mine who is raising a French-English bilingual child. And she says, you know, even in Canada, where there’s lots of opportunities for French exposure, it’s a project you have to choreograph your child’s life to be in circumstances that make use of the other language.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, so natural circumstances where you need to use language.

Sharon Unsworth: Erika talked about bringing up bilingual children as a project. Such an idea may be more acceptable to some parents than to others. But regardless of whether you want to see it as a project, it’s good to realize that bringing up bilingual children can sometimes require some effort. If you want to know what you can do to make sure your child uses both languages actively or what advice to give to parents if you’re a speech and language therapist or teacher, stay tuned. At the end of the episode, I’ll give you my top tips to help make this happen. But first, we’re going to hear from Kletshead of the week.


Kletshead of the week

Thorwen: I’m Thorwen and I live in Utrecht in the Netherlands, and I speak English, Dutch, and a very tiny bit of Chinese.

Sharon Unsworth: English, Dutch and a tiny bit of Chinese. So do you want to tell us about how you have learned all those different languages?

Thorwen: I spoke Dutch with my parents, but when I was seven, I moved to Hong Kong because my dad had to move there for his job. And then I lived there from the age of 7 to about 18. And in that time, obviously, well, first of all, I had to learn English, but also at school I had Chinese classes that I took for until about I was 16 and I remember a bit of it. Not much, but.

Sharon Unsworth: How old are you now?

Thorwen: I’m 19.

Sharon Unsworth: Already you can’t remember much of the Chinese.

Thorwen: Yeah. It’s just a very complicated language. It’s just very different from like English or Dutch in that there’s no alphabet. And honestly, even at my peak, I wasn’t very good at Chinese, so to say, yeah, I’ve forgotten most of it. My brother’s a lot better than me.

Sharon Unsworth: So what was it like learning Chinese then, apart from being difficult?

Thorwen: It’s also a very interesting insight, I think, into the Chinese culture, because these classes weren’t just about learning Chinese, they were also for learning a bit about China. So, for example, we did calligraphy classes and stuff like that. We just learned a bit more about this different culture that’s completely different from ours. Really?

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So you were in Hong Kong for a large part of your schooling then, and so you went to an international school?

Thorwen: I went to three different schools in Hong Kong. The first one was, I’d say, a mix between local and international, and that’s primary school, obviously. And then I finished my primary school at a full-on international school. I think there were like 60 different nationalities represented in that school alone. For middle school and high school, I went to actually quite a local school. So like all the classes were given in English, except pretty much 99 per cent of the students were from Hong Kong. When I first moved there, I was the only one who wasn’t from Hong Kong in the school, I think.

Sharon Unsworth: How did you experience that?

Thorwen: Again, as I said, I moved from an international school to this local school. So it is a very interesting change. A lot of time during breaks, for example, you’d have Cantonese being spoken. You pick up a bit of that. And I think also, what is good to mention is that international schools, I think, have a very sort of a bubble often. Everyone has the same international background where they moved to Hong Kong, where they have from somewhere else or they have parents who are from somewhere else. It’s a bit of a generalization, but I think they all have a very similar approach or a way of looking at life, perhaps.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah.

Thorwen: And then you move to this very local school of all these kids who are just like, they’re from Hong Kong, their parents are from Hong Kong, their grandparents are from Hong Kong. They grew up, they lived in Hong Kong their entire life. And you sort of escape that international bubble, I think, which is, what I see, very good for my development, I’d say.

Sharon Unsworth: In what way then? I’m curious.

Thorwen: So, again, it goes back to this different sort of culture, I think, because even like little things like the food they brought or the way they interacted with each other. So quite a different insight or a way of approaching life, I’d say. Well, I have sort of the mentality that being exposed to different ways of living and of different cultures and different approaches, it can only help because then you have these different perspectives and obviously you can see the benefits of one and the benefits of the other, and you can see what might not work well in one and why not work so well on the other. Yeah, that’s one of the main things that has helped my development, I think.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And so I’m curious now. So you’re back in the Netherlands and what are you doing and is this in any way related to this international perspective that you’ve gained?

Thorwen: Well, I study politics, philosophy, economics at the Utrecht University. And first of all, it’s a very international course. I’ve almost gone back into that international bubble. You could say. We’ve got people from all over the world taking part. It’s a course given in English. So we’ve got people from Asia, from South America, from Europe, obviously from anywhere. So I think the main benefit that I’ve got is I think I’m quite good at knowing how to sort of switch and interact between the different cultures, between different people.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Yeah. So intercultural communication it’s called, right. And it’s going a bit back now to the language side of things. Would you call yourself bilingual, then?

Thorwen: Yeah, I call myself bilingual.

Sharon Unsworth: How important is it for you to be bilingual?

Thorwen: In all honesty, it’s all I know. But I think it’s especially important because I’ve grown up overseas and I know the Netherlands, let’s face it, is not a very big country. Not a lot of people speak Dutch. So to have a language like English, is, in my opinion, essential if you’re going to go anywhere or interact anywhere with anyone outside of the Netherlands, that’s just important.

Sharon Unsworth: And I know you followed Dutch education abroad like, heritage language schools it’s often called, or community language schools, where you go to classes in a language that’s not the majority or the school language in the place where you live. What was that like?

Thorwen: My primary school years, I actually went to a physical school on the other side of Hong Kong from where I lived. I’d go there every Wednesday after my, you could say English school, my English classes, and I’d have class for about two hours. I think this is a way of sort of bringing a lot of Dutch people together in one place. A lot of Dutch families from Hong Kong would send their kids here and this is where we’d all meet up. We’d have discussions, we’d have fun, all that sort of stuff. Obviously, seven-year-old me didn’t enjoy it so much. I’d rather be at home playing video games.

Sharon Unsworth: But I have a seven-year-old at home who would probably agree with you if I tried to send him to English class.

Thorwen: But I had to deal with my parents that every Wednesday because we went to Dutch school as sort of compensation, as a reward we’d have a pancake day so we’d have pancakes for dinner. And that tradition still stands today, even though I’m not Dutch school and none of my brothers and sisters are at Dutch school every Wednesday still pancake day in our house.

Sharon Unsworth: Oh yeah?

Thorwen: Yeah that’s a fun little fact about us.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, that’s nice. There are lots of multilingual children and young adults like yourself growing up in the Netherlands who speak a different language than Dutch at home, and some of them do attend these heritage language schools. In the last episode of the podcast, we spoke to somebody about this very question, though they’re not always considered that beneficial, I think. How do you feel about that when you hear that?

Thorwen: For one, I think there were multiple benefits. Firstly, it does keep you sort of up to date. It does keep you sort of linked to your home country. So, for example, we wouldn’t just learn Dutch in these schools. You’d also have discussions about what’s happening in the Netherlands. It maintains that link a bit. In Hong Kong, I know there’s also parents who are Dutch and kids who don’t speak any Dutch at all. They have very little to no interest in the Netherlands. They don’t view themselves as Dutch anymore. The second reason that my parents would always tell me is, that it’s always with that aim of when I grew older, when I was 18, 19, like now, I would have the opportunity to study in the Netherlands. And knowing Dutch when you come back is just it’s beneficial because, I mean, when you live here, everyone does speak English, except I think you are missing out a bit if you don’t speak Dutch. And I do find, when I compare myself to some of my international friends here, when we are meeting new Dutch people, for example, or are a more Dutch community, it’s a lot easier for me to sort of join that group and become a part of that group than it is for my international friends, because my friends, they don’t speak Dutch. Yes, I think another it just it helps you keep your options open in the sense that it helps maintain that link to your home country. And it maintains that option that your child can go back to your home country and have an almost native experience alongside the international experience they’ve already had.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, and even I guess if you’re not intending or there’s not even an option or an interest for a, you know, a child to go to the other country when they’re older to study or to work or anything like that. There’s also the question of being able to talk to you to your grandparents because often they won’t speak the new language that you’re learning. So you use English a lot during the day, but you know, Dutch is your home language. So which do you prefer to speak?

Thorwen: This is a tough one. In the summer, I’ll spend three months with my family and purely my family, and then I’ll be speaking Dutch every day non-stop. And at the end of it, honestly, I prefer speaking Dutch because that’s what I’ve done for the last three months. But for example, now I’m in March, I spent the last eight months surrounded by my international friends and a bit of Dutch here and there, but mainly English, and then it goes back to English. And I do prefer English now, I think.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So it changes.

Thorwen: Yeah, reading and writing, it’s English no matter what. But speaking-wise, it can depend on the exposure of the language I have at that moment.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So I think that will be reassuring to many parents who are listening to know that it does change. Right. Because typically what happens by the end of a school year, children will often be more Dutch-speaking and then maybe will go to visit some family who speak the other language during the summer and then all of a sudden we get a boost again of that if that other language. You recognize that, then?

Thorwen: Yeah, that’s exactly what happens. It’s yeah. I always had this thing in high school that when I came back from holidays of my family, I suddenly have a Dutch accent again and then over time it would sort of disappear and then I’d have a family holiday, and my teachers would be like, the Dutch accent is back.

Sharon Unsworth: In your English?

Thorwen: In my English.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So they do they influence each other then, the two languages.

Thorwen: I suppose.

Sharon Unsworth: So you said you can’t you can’t remember any Chinese. Can you teach me something, I can’t speak Chinese at all.

Thorwen: Well, hello, you can say ni hao.

Sharon Unsworth: Ni hao.

Thorwen: Ni hao. And just as quick side note, there’s like different there’s meant to be like a specific way of pronouncing these words like tones and stuff. And I gave that up at the age of eight. So I just say the pronunciation without the tones. But it’s ni hao is hello and thank you, for example, is xiè xiè.

Sharon Unsworth: Xiè xiè.

Thorwen: Xiè xiè. If you want to say goodbye it’s zài jiàn.

Sharon Unsworth: Zài jiàn. Okay. Xiè xiè and zài jiàn, Thorwen.

Thorwen: Zài jian.

Sharon Unsworth: OK, so we’re talking today about whether a child needs to speak both languages to be bilingual, and I’m sitting here with Erika Hoff from Florida Atlantic University in the United States. We’ve said it does matter if you want your child to become the bilingual who really does speak both languages, then it does matter that they do practice those languages when they’re children. Why does it matter?

Erika Hoff: Well, a variety of reasons have been suggested, and these are not competing explanations, all of these things can be true. One is it’s really when you have to produce a language that you realize what you know and what you don’t know, it’s sort of easy to sit and listen and think, “I’m sort of following, I’m OK in Dutch.” But then when you have to produce that, you realize, well, you don’t actually know as much as you thought. Another thing that happens is when you speak a language, you get feedback and it doesn’t have to be feedback from other people correcting you. It can be feedback in the sense of you realize that you meant to buy a round trip ticket and you didn’t, you only bought a one-way ticket. That’s feedback; something you said was not entirely clear. And other more sort of internally psychological explanations have to do with the kind of knowledge you need in your head in order to speak a language as opposed to the knowledge you need in your head. To understand a language, to understand a language, you need to know that these sounds correspond to these meanings. To speak a language in addition to knowing that you also have to know how to produce those sounds just the way if you want to knit, you have to know how to knit. If you want to hit a ball, you have to know how to hit a ball. There is something to learning the motor component of speech that you simply will never learn if you never speak the language right.

Sharon Unsworth: So by motor component, you mean like putting your tongue in the right place to produce the right sound so that you can get the word out? Yeah, right. Right. So practice makes perfect?

Erika Hoff: Well, practice is necessary for even coming close to perfect.

Sharon Unsworth: Practicing a language is important for several reasons, then. Quite simply, it teaches your mouth how to get everything in the right place when you want to make a certain sound. When you actively use the language yourself, you also realize what you do or don’t know. For example, if you want to tell mum that you don’t want to eat sprouts, but you can’t think of the word sprouts in the language in question, you’ll quickly realize that you don’t know that word. You simply won’t know what to say. In a situation like this, it’s possible that mum might say the right word herself. And precisely because you just tried to do the same or failed, you’re more likely to pick up the word when you hear it. If you ask for broccoli when you actually meant to ask for sprouts, I can’t imagine that you would but anyway, you’ll get what Erika called feedback. In a situation like this, things don’t turn out the way you intended and you become aware of the fact that something you just said probably wasn’t quite right. Sometimes children are really conscious of such learning experiences, but quite often they’re not. What’s clear, though, is that learning experiences such as these only occur when children actively use the language themselves. So far in this episode, we focused on bilingual children’s use of the minority language or heritage language at home. More often than not, this language stays at home and isn’t used at school. Sometimes it’s not even welcome at school. This can, of course, depend on the language. If your home language is English, like my kids’, then at some point or another you will end up using it at school. The same, of course, holds for any language, which is also taught as a school subject. Here in the Netherlands, as in many places, that would be French, German or Spanish. But there are, of course, many other languages that bilingual children speak at home, and research suggests that allowing children to make use of these languages at school, or at least not forcing them to leave them at the school gate, can be beneficial in a number of ways. This is exactly why our next guest started an initiative to help schools support, promote and definitely not prohibit the use of bilingual children’s home languages at school.


Let’s Klets!

Ellen-Rose Kambel: My name is Ellen-Rose Kambel, I live in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and I am the director of the Rutu Foundation for Intercultural Multilingual Education and co-founder of the Language Friendly School.

Sharon Unsworth: So tell me about the Rutu Foundation. What do you do?

Ellen-Rose Kambel: So the Foundation is a non-profit organization that focuses on children who speak another language at home than the one that is used in schools. And Rutu means roots in Sranan, which is a language that is used in Suriname, my home country. And it means that we find it important that the roots of children are well-nourished because that means that they can grow. We know that children who speak the language or languages at home and they speak them well and they are proud of those languages and of who they are, then the chance is bigger that they will also learn the school language well and, of course, all the other subjects. And this is something that in a lot of countries is not always recognized. So what we do as an organization is we raise consciousness about the importance of integrating and valuing the languages of pupils and also about the damage, the social emotional damage that can be the result when teachers prohibit the languages of the children, because this also happens a lot. And also punishments are still doled out to children who speak a different language than the school language. But we also develop a multilingual teaching materials so that children can use both languages for learning and to allow their parents to help them with their schoolwork.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, maybe before we start talking about the language friendly school, you can tell us a bit about your own background.

Ellen-Rose Kambel: I studied law in the Netherlands. I am, as I said, from Suriname and when I was 14. I came to the Netherlands and I did a Ph.D. research about the human rights of indigenous women in Suriname. So that had nothing to do with education or linguistics. But what happened is after my my PhD, I was part of a project to document the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples. They said the language is deteriorating because, just like in the Netherlands, in Suriname almost exclusively instruction in Dutch and just like in the Netherlands, we have a lot of children in Surinam who do not speak Dutch at home. Of course, a far greater percentage in Suriname. But this caused my interest in language and culture and education. And also, I was living in the Netherlands and my daughter was born, who has an English-speaking father. So we raised my daughter bilingually and what I noticed is that her teachers had no idea what it meant for a child to be raised multilingually. What I noticed is that they basically treated my daughter as a monolingual student. From the beginning, the teachers have always had a lower impression of my daughter, and one of them said, “Well, of course, she’s not going to go very far,” of my daughter, who was six. She didn’t know that the six-year-old at that moment could read English better than Dutch. I mean, everything worked out fine with her. And she’s now studying at a very good university in the US. But what I noticed is that it did impact her self-esteem. And I still see that she has the feeling that she has to prove herself, that she’s maybe smart enough. She has two highly-educated parents, one of which makes the school language well, Dutch is my mother tongue. But of course, with kids with lower-educated parents, where maybe both parents do not speak the school language. I think a lot of talent is being lost just because education is geared towards only one side of a multilingual child.

Sharon Unsworth: And so this was then inspiration for you to start the Language Friendly School?

Ellen-Rose Kambel: Yes, this idea developed together with my colleague Emmanuelle Le Pichon-Vorstman, who is a linguist currently based in the University of Toronto. We basically put together our experiences with schools in different countries, where we noticed that everywhere the context may be different, the languages spoken are different, but what unites them is the multilingualism of their students. We created a label for schools who commit not to punish, prohibit or discourage children from using their own languages at school and to allow them to develop their own language for any school plan that fits with their priorities. And the idea is that together with parents and the whole school team, but also the children, they develop a plan and they look at, “Well, what can we do to make our school language-friendly?” And it might be that some schools say, “Well, at this point we only want to develop a multilingual school library.” That is fine. We really believe in small steps because there are other schools who have been doing this for years and have trained their team and they are incorporating the home languages into the classroom. And so by bringing together all these different schools, what we want to achieve is that they learn from each other, that they get inspiration and empowerment. Most schools who are doing this are in an environment where multilingualism is seen as a problem, as an obstacle, and they have a hard time finding colleagues who believe, who have the same values as them.

Sharon Unsworth: So it’s about creating a network amongst like-minded schools, but presumably also not only attaching a label to schools that are maybe already doing a lot of these language-friendly practices. But presumably, you also want to then encourage other schools to adopt language-friendly policies, even though they’ve maybe never even thought about it. Is that right?

Ellen-Rose Kambel: Absolutely. We had one school director who is monolingual and he said, “Well, I don’t understand everything about this multilingual approach, but I just look at the kids and I see it is good. I see how they react. And I know this is the way to go.”

Sharon Unsworth: And what kinds of things does he see then?

Ellen-Rose Kambel: That they are really happy and at ease, that there are kids who at first were maybe not saying much, but then they give them, for example, the role of taking new parents who speak their language, give them a tour of the school, and you see the kids shining and proud that he can do it. And especially if it’s a language that not a lot of people speak. And good directors also say that they notice that it’s good for their team, but especially that it makes it easier for the teachers to teach. And we had one teacher who said that now that she is using the multilingual knowledge of her students in the classroom, that very boring or previously very boring grammar lessons suddenly became… She had a classroom full of kids that are highly motivated to tell her how this particular grammatical issue, how that was dealt with in their language. So they were prepared, they were coming to class and they couldn’t wait to share their knowledge. And so she said, “It has just made my teaching so much easier.”

Sharon Unsworth: Which I think might sound counterintuitive to some people.

Ellen-Rose Kambel: Exactly, yeah. That is, I think, what is most difficult about this is that it is counterintuitive, that the idea is you can learn the language… The best way to learn it is if you are completely immersed in the language and do not use your other language or languages at all. Now, that has been over 40 years of research showing quite clearly that kids do better actually the longer they are educated and learn to read and write in the language that they speak best because that gives them the basis from which they can learn the second language.

Sharon Unsworth: How many language friendly schools are there now?

Ellen-Rose Kambel: We have 12, with the majority in the Netherlands. And we have one in Canada and most recently one in Spain.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. So there’s plenty of scope for expansion. How many is your dream? How many would you like to see?

Ellen-Rose Kambel: Our dream is in 2030, that’s the deadline for the Sustainable Development Goals from UNESCO, which includes the commitment to provide quality education to all children, No Child Left Behind, of which UNESCO has said that includes education in the language they speak best. And so we have set our goal 2030 to have ten thousand Language Friendly Schools all around the world.

Sharon Unsworth: OK, so if anybody is listening and thinking as a teacher or as a parent, “Yeah, I think this may be something for our school.” What should they do?

Ellen-Rose Kambel: They should go to our website, language friendly school dot org. They find a lot of information. There’s also videos that you can see from what the schools are actually doing. And also a registration form and you can sign up.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. And what can they expect after that? So they have to make the certain commitment, right, for not prohibiting, discouraging, or I’ve forgotten what the other one was…

Ellen-Rose Kambel: Punishing.

Sharon Unsworth: Punishing, important. Punishing the use of the home language school. And then they have to make this plan and then do they get support, right, in this plan?

Ellen-Rose Kambel: Yes. Once they have signed up, they get access to a web page where we have developed a toolkit of language-friendly activities. These are activities that other schools are doing. They can be inspired by these ideas, but we also ask them to share their own activities, so the whole network can benefit. And also we have a library of both scientific and more popular articles and books around multilingual education so that they don’t need to go through the whole Internet and find what they need, because a lot of colleagues still might need to be convinced, or parents. So we try to make it as easy as possible for schools to be language friendly.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Just to finish then what’s in it for the school? I mean, I think you and me both think, “Yeah! That’s a great idea.” But I can imagine a school, you know, school has got many things to do. Why should they become a language-friendly school?

Ellen-Rose Kambel: So for schools who may have a lot of children speaking different languages and who don’t really know what to do, there they can find information and exchange practices with colleagues. For schools who have been doing this for a long time, they might feel it’s important, that’s what they say. That they can really show that to the outside world, that this is their approach, that they are a language-friendly school, that parents who are looking for a school who find this important, that their children are being welcomed and valued with their whole identity, including the languages, that they can find the school.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So if you’re interested, then get on over to language friendly school dot org, where you can find all the information. Thank you, Ellen-Rose.

Ellen-Rose Kambel: Thank you.

Sharon Unsworth: Something else that might affect how many opportunities bilingual children have to practice the minority language is how many speakers there are around them who actually speak that language, right? If mum is the only speaker, then it’s only when you’re with mum that you’re going to be able to practice. Whereas if you’ve got grandma around the corner who speaks the minority language, or friends who are also bilingual and where you regularly visit, you’ve got more chances. Is that something that matters or is it just the sheer volume, the sheer amount of language that you hear?

Erika Hoff: I think there’s good evidence that the number of speakers that you hear a language from matters. It matters, as you said, because more speakers are more… You will get more volume of language exposure. It also seems to be the case that hearing a language from different speakers gives the language learner useful information because when you learn a language, you have to learn all the distinctions that matter. So the little distinction between “p” and “b” make a difference between “pat” and “bat.” That’s a teeny little acoustic difference. And learning language requires learning that it matters. On the other hand, the child also has to learn all the things that don’t matter. When I say “pat” and a male speaker says “pat” acoustically, they’re very, very different and it’s the same word. So that kind of variety seems to be important to help children learn the difference between the differences that matter and the differences that don’t matter. That’s a pure sort of information function of having multiple speakers. I also think of sociologists have suggested this, that multiple speakers tells the child that this language has communicative value. I can talk to a lot of people with this.

Sharon Unsworth: That’s important. So it would be good to show a child that there are other speakers out there who speak that language. And other children, too? There often are parent-child groups, you know, around a certain community, culture, language.

Erika Hoff: Well, this hasn’t actually been studied, but I would think so again, for the communicative value of it.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. I mean, I know I remember a colleague from when I worked in Utrecht, an Italian speaker. She had a club of Italian speakers and they did events, a cultural festival, food, those kinds of things, everything to do with Italy. And she said the parents will be speaking Italian and the kids will be running around speaking in Dutch. I think, even so, I think it’s still important because it shows you… It teaches the child that there is a different culture out there as well, right. And so in that sense, that the language is important, too.

Erika Hoff: Yeah, I think that’s very, very valuable. And, you know, cultural attitudes and communicative value are all of these sort of harder to measure things that nonetheless have an influence.

Sharon Unsworth: That seems like a topic for a new episode of Kletsheads. In this episode, we learnt that if you want to increase your bilingual child’s chances of continuing to use both languages when they grow up, it’s important that they start early. Speaking the school language usually works out fine, but how do you get your child to use the other language too? These are my top tips to help make this happen. When your child is young, focus as much as possible on the other language, the minority or heritage language. Read to them or tell them stories in that language as much as you can. If they watch TV, have them do this in the minority language and as little as possible in the school language. This will provide a good basis for your child to actively use the minority language. Make sure you use the minority language as much as possible yourself. This will not only mean that your children will hear as much of that language as they can. You’ll also create an environment in which talking the language in question is completely normal and almost expected. Make sure your child knows the right words to talk about the things he or she likes to talk about. If, for example, you have a football-crazy daughter at home like I do, then tell them how to say “referee” and “goalkeeper” and “kick-off” in the heritage language. This will make it easier for him or her not to automatically switch to the school language when they’re talking about this topic. As Erika said, it can help to create as many natural circumstances as possible in which your child can do nothing but use the heritage language. For example, if you have a babysitter, try to find one who mainly or only speaks that language. In this way, your child will be forced to communicate in Italian, German or Polish or whatever the language is that you speak at home. If you have the chance, try to video call with family members abroad on a regular basis. I guess this is something that a lot of us are doing more than we would do normally anyway right now, given that the pandemic means international travel has been heavily restricted. If you can, and it’s easier for some than for others, try to spend time with other minority language speakers, especially children who can’t speak the majority language, so Dutch here in the Netherlands or whatever, that language is where you are. You can do this by visiting cousins, but you can also, for example, have your child attend the heritage language School. Though, as we heard from our Kletshead of the Week Thorwen, a bit of bribery might be needed to keep the motivation going. And when your children are older, you can explain to them that it’s important to you that they keep using your language. For example, because you want them to be able to talk to grandma and granddad. Of course, this doesn’t always work. Some children are more sensitive to this than others. But if it’s important to you as a parent that your child actively uses both languages, it can sometimes help to discuss this wish with your child and, of course, your partner. It’s also good to remember that raising a bilingual child is a dynamic process. I don’t know of any research on the topic, but over the years I’ve spoken to many parents who’ve told me that their children went through a phase where they refused to speak the heritage language. But at some point, later changed their minds, sometimes consciously, sometimes less so, and started using it again. This won’t happen with all children, of course, but it’s worth bearing in mind that children’s language choices can and do change over time. So even if your child seems to only want to speak the school language at the moment, this could change. Finally, even if the tips I’ve given you here don’t help and your child keeps talking back to you in the school language when you speak a different one, it’s worth remembering that if you’re having a conversation, so if you understand each other, even though you speak in different languages, your child is bilingual. Maybe not as bilingual as you would like, but bilingual nonetheless. And this is something you can be very proud of.

Sharon Unsworth: If you want to know more about Kletsheads, go to Kletsheads podcast dot org. That’s where you’ll also find more information about this episode. If you want to make sure you don’t miss an episode, subscribe to Kletsheads using your favourite podcast app. Make sure you select the English edition. And if you’ve enjoyed the show, why not share it with a friend? Thanks for listening. And as we say in Dutch: tot het volgende keer.

This transcript was generated using and was checked by Marieke van den Akker.

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