How to support early years learners on the way to bilingualism?

We define someone as being bilingual as an individual who is able to make a seamless transition between the two languages of instruction. A bilingual person can read, write, understand, think and speak in the two languages without hindrance at all levels. This is to say that they are able to make the intercultural and linguistic transitions seamlessly, whether it be for study, business or leisure. Bilingual learners think, dream and tell jokes in the two languages.

At Wellington College China and Huili Education Group schools our two-way immersion comprises a balanced exposure to Chinese and English fostering bilingualism and biliteracy. We also recognise that with our early learners there are approaches that can be reinforced in the home setting to build upon the educational experience.

The bilingual immersion experience offers each and every child their own, personalised learning journey and there are a number of key approaches that can be reinforced at home to support that learning journey.

The mastery of language is an exciting lifelong journey of discovery. We must remember that all journeys start with small steps, supported by guides who help us on the way. We must celebrate and relish each of those milestones. As children transition through the phases of language development from ‘the silent period’ through ‘early production’ to ‘speech emergence’ and beyond, three practical steps are listed below that we can use as we guide them.

If a child is at the ‘the silent period’ the use of singing; which activates the right side of the brain, whereas our speech is activated from the left side of the brain; helps compensate for the later development of the language centres in the left side of the brain. Nursery rhymes and songs are excellent ways of familiarising a child with language.

Another technique is to model speaking through child directed speech. The Stanford Report, October 15, 2013 identified that young children learn language in the context of meaningful interactions with those around them. The research showed that children who had experienced more child-directed speech were more efficient at processing language.

‘The analyses revealed a cascade of effects – those toddlers who heard more child-directed talk became faster and more reliable in interpreting speech, and it was their superior skill in processing language that then increased their success in vocabulary learning.’
Source: Bjorn Carey Stanford Report, October 15, 2013

Using techniques such as the ‘3 strikes and you win’ technique enable you to model words and answers to your child. The technique can be used to teach new vocabulary, where a child’s desired object is held close to your mouth as you model the word, waiting 2-3 seconds for a response the child may or may not repeat the word. If the child repeats the word, celebrate and congratulate them. If your child does not repeat the word, then conduct the process a second time. On the third time if the child has not repeated the word you model the word clearly and give the child the object saying ‘Good, listening.’

However, being asked too many questions is daunting for a young learner and we must consider thinking time. This technique is probably the hardest one for us to do, especially in the fast moving era of the instant information superhighway that is the 21st Century. In a normal adult conversation our wait time is approximately one second. For young children the processing time can be up to ten times longer. Please give ten seconds waiting time and in those ten seconds remember that your child is decoding what he or she has been asked and then constructing a response and is then having to shape and say new words and sounds. It is a complex process! If your child is not able to respond after the ten seconds, do not ask the same question again, however re-frame it in a simpler fashion and build in an element of choice.

For example:
Child: ‘I want sandwich.’
Adult: ‘You want a sandwich. Which sandwich do you want?’
Allow thinking time.
Child: ‘Sandwich.’
Adult: ‘Would you like a chicken sandwich or a jam sandwich?’
Point to chicken slices and jam pot respectively.
Child: ‘A jam sandwich.’
Adult: ‘Good listening, you would like a jam sandwich.’

If we focus on these three key areas of singing, child directed speech through effective questioning and modelling and giving thinking time we will be able to help our learners on their exciting journey to true bilingualism. Where they will be able to experience their dreams equally in Chinese or English.

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