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Kids talk: Tips on making bilingual education work in Belgium
In a country where many people effortlessly switch between their national tongues, and myriad languages can be heard among the huge expat community, deciding where and how to educate your children raises the question of which language to choose.
Whether you choose a European school, international school or local Belgian education, your kids have the chance to grow up with more than one language and potentially become at least bilingual. “I’m happy we’ve done it this way,” says one mum whose five-year-old daughter, educated in a local school, flips with ease between Dutch and English, picks up French at school and speaks some German with her stepbrother. “She switches between languages depending on who she is speaking to.”
But even if such stories hold enormous appeal in a world where careers are often enhanced by language knowledge, parents have many questions. Will my child confuse languages? Will they make friends? Will they lack depth in any language? How will I help with homework? Will they struggle with their identity?
The advantages of bi- or multilingualism include future career prospects, openness to other cultures, the ability to learn yet further languages, integration into communities and, according to many studies, cognitive benefits as more languages open up more neural pathways in the brain.
“Learning a language is essentially about learning a set of symbol-meaning relationships,” says Alex Housen, linguistics professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). “Bilingual kids quickly realise that words are mere symbols that differ from language to language – compare butterfly to papillon to Schmetterling – and that’s already a form of abstract awareness that will spill over into other cognitive domains.”
Nonetheless, while many parents are delighted and proud of their children’s language abilities, there are cases where things don’t work out as well as parents had expected. One mother, who didn’t want to be named, sent her English-speaking daughter to a Flemish pre-school in the hope she would do what everyone said she would and become bilingual within three months. Her daughter eventually became mute in class.“It took about a year for her to use about six words, obviously not enough for normal play and friendship building,” she says. “It’s not the bed of roses the bilingual mums want to paint it as, but saying so is judged as harshly as comparing breast- and bottle-feeding.”
And even if parents are happy that their kids are becoming polyglots, anxieties prevail. “I’m afraid none of their languages will be as deep as my first language,” says Kata Csehek, a Hungarian whose children are educated in Dutch, adding, “It’s perhaps just different from what I’m used to and therefore I see it as a negative.”
Bilingualism without trauma
There are ways to ease the path and achieve bilingualism without trauma. Gordon Eldridge, curriculum director at the International School of Brussels, says much depends on context and expectations. Slight language delays, for example, are a perfectly normal part of the process.“It depends on the kid’s age. They will often be a little bit delayed in both languages, and sometimes parents underestimate that, but they usually catch up within a short space of time.” In the case of older children, however, Eldridge says they may lack certain concepts in topics they haven’t learned about in their own language. “If you put a child in an abstract physics class, they won’t have that concrete framework of language.”
This can be overcome by maintaining the language (or languages) of the home. “You can talk to them in your own language about what they’re learning at school. In that way you can feed them vocabulary. Reading in their first language – both fiction and non-fiction – is also very important,” he says. To avoid confusion, parents should stick with their own language with their kids. For younger children it helps them to separate, and it gives older ones a solid basis to understand concepts in the new language. “To the greatest possible extent, don’t mix, especially with young children who are still learning the basics of their language. Keep it to one person or situation, one language,” says Housen.
When it comes to homework, this shouldn’t be a cause for concern. Eldridge says children shouldn’t be given homework they’re not capable of doing themselves. “Parents should talk carefully with the teacher. The school has to be willing to deal with a family that has other languages."
In practice, of course, there may be many times your kids get homework they cannot handle. This, and many other issues, comes down to the school. “A big question is whether the teachers are sensitive to and knowledgeable about the specific characteristics and needs of bi- and multilingual children, who sometimes go through a ’silent stage’ in the development of their new school language,” says Housen.
Take your time
He urges parents in doubt, especially where children are small, to give it some time. “It’s hard to say whether certain problems are really because of language. Most likely they are not, and the ‘problems’ would also have risen one way or the other if the child had been in a monolingual environment. Also, acquiring a new language takes some time, and with some patience language-related problems will disappear automatically.”
He and Eldridge agree that the only cases where it might not work are where the child is older and has little time to achieve the competence they need for successful grades. Even then, some children surprise everyone. Eldridge talks about a Japanese student with “pretty much zero English by grade 10” who achieved 36 points on her International Baccalaureate – comfortably good enough for university admission.
As for the depth of language, studies show that bi- and multilinguals will have a lower vocabulary in each language. “Young bilingual children typically lag behind the monolingual but will eventually catch up, particularly as far as the grammar and phonology are concerned,” says Housen. “But bilinguals will always lag behind in vocabulary, at least when compared to a matched monolingual. Rather than, say, 30,000 words in one language, they may have only 25,000.” Of course, he adds, they will have 25,000 words times two.
There are plenty of opportunities in Belgium’s schools for children to acquire more than one language; certainly for parents of younger children or those staying here longterm, the initial issues would seem, with care, to be surmountable. “If you are mobile, the big advantage is quite simply to become bilingual,” says Eldridge.
This article first appeared in The Bulletin Spring 2018