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Bilingual Learning for Multiple Benefits

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

Hong Kong’s unique geographical and historical background makes it a cosmopolitan city where “East meets West.” As our global society evolves and re-shapes, handling more than one language and dealing with cross-cultures can become an everyday part of a child’s life. Years of compiled technical research and endless discoveries have contributed in the way adults look upon raising and teaching a child.

Just a few moments into life and a baby reacts to stimulants with 100 billion neurons. By age two, this capacity would have doubled. The pathway connections (allowing electrical impulses to flow) are needed to activate different parts of the brain. The brain will respond appropriately to the senses around. The more varied the early childhood stimulants provided are, the more likelihood of “waking up” that part of the brain for lifelong learning. Language development is a key dynamic.

The Bilingual Child Versus the Monolingual Child

A team of Cambridge University (UK) researchers at the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, have proved that children who speak more than one language are multi-advantaged over their monolingual friends. The benefits go even further, as Dr Alexopoulou explained: “Studies show that a bilingual child is better able to cope with tasks that involve attention, memory and concentration. The mental gymnastics needed to constantly manage two or more linguistic systems increases cognitive flexibility and makes learning easier.”

Educators also confirm that learning more than one language is not a hindrance (as maybe previous perceived) but is in fact a catalyst for increased wider learning. Researchers’ studies show bilingual children outperforming monolingual children in a range of abilities. It has been noted that if a specific learning need is identified in a young child, it is far swifter to notice this in a bilingual setting, and therefore be able to address the need appropriately. A Dutch parent shared her feedback a couple of years after her two sons joined Yew Chung International School of Hong Kong (YCIS) with only their mother tongue, “The boys learned so much; their English is close to native, but even more valuable to us is what they learn about respect (among children but also to and from teachers and other adults) and being a good person.” This is in conjunction with learning Chinese too.

A Bilingual Learning Environment

For a child having access to a bilingual learning environment before the age of seven makes a significant contribution to the successful and natural development potential. Parents, who feel their child must become accomplished in their ‘mother tongue’ before commencing learning another language, are missing the gift of giving lifelong benefits to their child and, in addition, perhaps limiting the depth of future bilingualism. YCIS Dutch parent, Mrs. Reneirs says “We found the perfect school for my two kids (4 and 6 in 2014), who both did not then speak a word of English (or Chinese).”

Immersing a child in a bilingual setting brings the natural flow of two languages to their ears. Children learn so much more effectively when the activities are meaningful to them; at the core of successful learning they must be engaged. In role-play activities, for example, children can connect to the words easily because they are active participants. A natural absorption of two languages, somewhat effortlessly, with little pressure, ignites the acceptance of “two radio channels”. In a learning environment with co-teachers (one per language) both delivering and expecting a return of communication, the layers of comprehension build naturally.

In the Bilingual Setting

Classroom techniques which focus on language development can address the needs of learners in the ‘silent period’, e.g. promoting listening comprehension and vocabulary input. There are also methodologies which explicitly incorporate a silent period, such as a more physical response and the natural approach. This is exactly the previously outlined “natural involvement” that the child needs to be the active participant and experience the meaning of the words appropriately.

The “Silent Period”

The silent period hypothesis is the idea that when a language is learned, there should be a period when the learner is not expected to produce any response. This is based on observations of a listening period in infants when they learn a (first) language. Thereafter, this is noticed when a child is submerged in another language. Parents and teachers can encourage the repeat use of words spoken, and applied in a situation so eventually, at any given period, the child’s speaking will represent the understanding thus gained.

When learners begin to study a new language, they can go through a silent period until they are exposed to sufficient comprehensive input to allow them to realise they have acquired sufficient language to commence communication. So, for the baby or child this is the same principal for multiple language absorption. Different children will have different ‘silent period’ lengths but in order to minimise this, the adults should consider the quality of delivery.

Acquiring Proficiency in More than One Language

For maximum quality language development educators highly recommend the delivery of:

  1. One adult / one language provision: a child should recognize one person for one (certain) language, so that his/ her comprehension and return communication is via a consistent channel; rather like tuning into a radio frequency.

  2. Quality of language provision: each deliverer should be conversing in his/her native language (or near native / very high quality.) If a child is subjected to a weak supply, such as limited vocabulary, grammatical errors, limited use of the tenses, then ultimately this is what the child will use.

  3. Consistency of the provision: By the pure determined and continual exchange of communication between a child and adult in the chosen language, the more rewarding the results.

Children are highly capable of sorting out the “radio channels” and becoming beautifully bilingual with competent proficiency, thanks to the optimum bilingual environment. Needless to say we can only imagine the adult life that today’s children will encounter, but with increasing international markets, trade, finance and operations of endless industries, being bilingually proficient will become the very minimum expected.

This article was written by Cathy Ben-David, Head of Marketing & Admissions, YCIS Hong Kong


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