Like Rojas, Crisfield began by dispelling some of the common “mummy myths” around language, particularly that it was easier to learn for children – she said something that every parent with older children will have personal experience of – “no it’s still hard, but they’re just too small to complain”. Although they are more phonetically sensitive and therefore more likely to speak other languages without an accent. She emphasized that the role of parents was to ensure that we make our children’s language journeys as easy as possible, and to do this we have 6 tasks:
1. Learn the theory
2. Set Goals
3. Plan to achieve the goals
4. Communicate with our children
5. Communicate with others
6. Know when to get help.
Learn the theory
We commenced with a little bit of jargon, what is mother tongue, L1, home language etc. (see my glossary here for a complete vocabulary).
One of the most important things she touched on is how we need to take care of the messages (verbal, non-verbal and behavioural) we give our children about the relative importance of our mother tongue and our attitudes towards it, particularly in the case of languages with a lower status.
This was a discussion on what level of mastery of language (communicative and literary) was aimed for and why. It was important to think the whole language journey through (or at least while they were students). While it was possible to impose our language expectations on our children while they were younger, we would need to be able to communicate a valid good reason for continuing the regime as they matured and formed their own opinions. In the case of multiple languages we needed to order our priorities and give reasons for them.
In setting goals, we should ensure we have the necessary knowledge and support network to support those goals and that the goals are realistic (I’ve written more on this here in theory, and as it relates to my family situation).
Plan to achieve the goals
Here the concept of a COP (community of practise) was introduced – i.e. is there a linguistic community around you that you can get help from. The smaller the COP, the more planning and logistics were required.
The most fundamental issue was planning for enough language input. According to Crisfield, research showed that for bi/tri-lingualism children needed around 30-35% of their linguistic input to be in the target language. (You will note I’ve said bi/tri-lingualism rather than multi-lingualism, which is what I used to say … I’d not heard the 30-35% statistic before and need to follow up on this). She stated that if language input was only say 20%, the child would understand the language but would most likely become a passive bilingual. The 30-35% targeted input suggests that three languages are the most realistic option initially – with the caveat that this could change as the child got older.
In the case of language, it appeared that “less is more” should be our motto to ensure our time and effort is focused and is not spread too thinly.
It was also paramount to plan for multiple literacy, so that the language would not be lost over time and children could continue to resource their language maintenance on their own through reading and writing. Once again, the reminder that BICS (conversational) language takes 1-2 years while CALP was a 3-9 year process (I’ve heard 5-7 years more commonly used). She also cautioned that problems in other subjects may be masking a problem in language or a learning difficulty.
And in our globally mobile environment – we needed to think about a future in different countries or environments and how this would impact our plan and resourcing. Language acquisition and sustainability was a long term process that couldn’t rely on one school or community if this was not likely to be permanent.
Communicate with our children
As mentioned earlier, at a certain point we will need to justify our choices to our children and to ensure that they are part of the discussion / conversation around language, and who speaks what and why in the family. Choices are valid, but they should be properly communicated.
Communicate with others
One should communicate language goals, expectations and intentions with people around you. Like grandparents and other family, babysitters and others in the community to ensure their actions and language they speak are aligned. School teachers and administrators need to be kept in the loop about what is happening linguistically at home.
Know when to get help
If children are exhibiting delays in speech and language, or learning issues it’s important to look at all languages globally and not just at the dominant language. Any therapist, professional or doctor needs to understand the developmental and educational issues around bilingualism so that a proper assessment can be made. It is not good practise for a professional to suggest that one language should be stopped (e.g. to stop the home language to encourage the school language).
5 further issues were also discussed, literacy, content, cognitive development, confidence and social development.
Children were learning to read and write in two or more languages. In doing so, they could use translanguaging, which is where one language is used to help or scaffold the other, languages are used together and used strategically. This did not imply mixing languages or inserting words or sentences of one language into conversations randomly, but rather a strategic use in order to bridge gaps.
In order to become literate, children needed to go beyond merely being able to read in both languages to comprehending and understanding the content. Parents needed to check for understanding after reading to children or when children read to them. This may require the reading of a story in both languages to ensure that meaning is conveyed, or reading the story more than once. Reading to children in all languages was fundamental. And, ironically children could often write before they could read, if they know letter formation and are left to creative phonetic spelling without correction. Experience rather than accuracy should be emphasized.
Literacy in both languages could be simultaneous (at the same time) or sequential (where reading and writing of one language is started with and then the next added). In the case of a third language it is usually advisable to give children a mental break before adding the literacy of a third language.
Talk about the second language in the MT, compare and contrast and mediate in order to clarify similarities and differences.