Central and Eastern Europe, Education, International Journalism and PR

‘’Bilingual children have two language systems and this makes them different from monolingual children. Not better, not worse, just different’’

Interview with Sharon Unsworth, Phd, Associate Professor of Second Language Acquisition at Radboud University Nijmegen

Sharon Unsworth’s research concerns the language development of bilingual children. She is interested in which factors influence how children learn a second language, including starting age and the amount and type of contact they have with the language in question. She is also involved in a project investigating bilingual education in Dutch primary schools. In addition, she regularly runs workshops and give talks for parents of bilingual children. 

We are talking with Sharon about bilingual children at Dutch schools, advantages of bilingualism, Dutch assessment system which is based on monolingual kids and we will provide tips both for teachers and parents of bilingual children.

This interview will be followed by an article in which we expand the subject of bilingualism and look into such issues as retention, assessment and bad and good practices at Dutch schools.

Beata Bruggeman-Sekowska: Sharon, what are the advantages of bilingualism?

There are many, but of course the most important is that you can speak two languages, which means that you can communicate with your parent(s) and wider family, you have access to another culture and (if you can read) literature, and in the longer term, you may have better job prospects as a result. Bilingual children have been shown to have better metalinguistic awareness, they can better understand other people’s perspectives, and they may be better at learning a third language. There are a number of studies suggesting that bilinguals may show cognitive advantages (for example, they may be better at blocking out unnecessary information), although whether this advantage is found depends on a number of factors.

Monolingual kids use one ‘’system’’ in their heads, bilingual have one set more, they use two systems. To make it more visible: monolingual kids use one dictionary bilingual have two at their disposal. Can kids mix up the words, spelling, pronunciation, grammar in two languages and is it normal?

Bilingual children have two language systems and this makes them different from monolingual children. Not better, not worse, just different. Until recently, most researchers agreed that bilingual children have two completely separate language systems. There have been a number of different studies more recently suggesting that there is some level of sharing across languages. How else is it possible that one language can influence the other?

In short, it’s perfectly normal for one language to have an effect on the other. At the same time, it is of course important – given the Dutch school system – to be able to function well in what is essentially a monolingual context.

Does the language combination can influence the level of performance of bilingual kids?

Some languages ​​are more closely related than others – compare, for example, the Dutch and German combinations and the Dutch and Turkish combination. In some instances, a bilingual child’s “other” language may help them, and in others it may hinder. In some cases, the bilingual “other” language of a child can help them, for example, when words have the same meaning and form, such as ”Hund”-dog in German and ”hond” in Dutch. Sometimes it’s just the opposite, when the words have the same form, for example ”brief” in Dutch and ”brief” in English, but they differ in meaning. (in Dutch: letter, in English: short) Some languages are more closely related than others – compare for example the combination Dutch and German and the combination Dutch and Turkish. You can find out more about this in this animation. (www.ru.nl/2in1project/meertaligheidinbeeld — third clip).

Being bilingual can influence many things such as the tempo of reading, understanding of the text tests if they are executed in a limited amount of time, spelling, vocabulary. Bilingual kids can do tests slower and it can be that they will not reach the results the monolingual kids reach during Dutch tests. Bilingual kids are compared with monolingual kids and assessed as worse because they score less or need more time which they are not given. Can teachers compare monolingual and bilingual kids?

You’re absolutely right that bilingual children are usually assessed using the norms for monolingual children. For vocabulary, this is problematic because we know that bilingual children will know some words in only one of their two languages. Which words they know will depend on the context in which they learn and use each language. See this animated clip for some examples and further explanation. This means that teachers need to take this into account when assessing bilingual children’s language development in Dutch. For reading and spelling the extent to which bilingual children may differ from their monolingual classmates may in part depend on the extent to which they can read in their other language. If they can, they may well need some time to reconfigure the links between letters and sounds to Dutch. At the same time, however, it is of course the case that bilingual children, just like their monolingual peers, have to do most (if not all) of their schooling Dutch, so it’s very important for them to develop their vocabulary in this language.

So, are Dutch CITO tests really a true reflection of the language capacities of the bilingual children?

As far as I know, the CITO tests are normed on monolingual children so in that sense whilst they may be perfectly good tests, they will never reflect the full language knowledge of bilingual children. Whether we like it or not, they reflect the current required language level to function within the Dutch schooling system and so in that sense we have to “deal” with them as parents of bilingual children until bilingual norms are available.

How important is the support of professional teachers by bilingual kids taking into consideration that bilingual kids are more insecure at school if teachers concentrate on what they do wrong, and do not stress that different does not mean worse.

Very! In addition to having some understanding about what can be expected from bilingual children – and to be clear, it’s not the case that bilingual children will always fall behind monolingual children – it’s also important to show appreciation and value the child’s other language. In fact, there is a recent move in certain quarters to encourage teachers to use bilingual children’s other language *in* the classroom as a way of helping them (and others) in their acquisition of Dutch. See here for links to relevant info.

What other tips would you give teachers of bilingual kids?

I think the most important is for teachers to be aware of how and when bilingual children may differ from monolinguals. The best approach is for teachers and parents to work together to come up with a plan to tackle the issue of bilingualism and the development of a bilingual child and to come up with a plan on how best to address this.

What tips would you give parents of bilingual children who struggle with recognition of capabilities of their bilingual kids

There are parents who have negative experience at Dutch schools and whilst I’m sure that things *are* getting better in the Netherlands when it comes to teachers’ attitudes to bilingualism, I know that this varies widely, not only depending on the teacher but also on the language in question (English is ok, Polish probably less so). At the same time, I think it’s also important that if you/we want to change something (in this case, teachers’ attitudes and behaviours) that you/we need to think carefully about how best to do this. If you simply tell teachers that what they’re doing is wrong, then this is likely to get their backs up (i.e., annoy them) and this could be counter-productive. I would say that the likely more successful approach is to combine providing information (and tools), in combination with illustrating how the negative attitudes and lack of expertise which your family has experienced affects you on a personal level (so try to appeal to the teachers’ desire to help and educate individual children).

Beata Bruggeman-Sekowska, is a mother of three children whom she tries to raise bilingually. She is an international journalist, linguist, author of 7 language books and many publications in Dutch, Polish and English. She holds a Master Degree in Linguistics and teaching methodology. Completed various courses in the field of pedagogy, language acquisition and assessment among others at Maastricht University, Warsaw University, Hogeschool van Amsterdam and Hogeschool Zuyd. She holds also a postmaster degree in journalism.

Image: Communications-Unlimited.nl

Image and text: Communications-Unlimited.nl
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