Opinion: Raising Multi-Lingual Children

Writing for WhichSchoolAdvisor.com,  Micheline Chaia, Language Institute Director, at GEMS World Academy – Dubai offers her advice for raising multilingual children in the United Arab Emirates...
Opinion: Raising Multi-Lingual Children
By Jenny Mollon
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In the UAE, it is an everyday experience to come across multiple languages beyond your own. It is the nature of the country – diverse, international, multicultural, with a majority expat population. It is part of what makes it such a wonderful place to live, work and raise a family. Children have the opportunity to be exposed to all those different cultures, enriching their understanding of the world and their appreciation for diversity. They also have a unique chance to learn different languages, while also maintaining and developing the language of their or their parents’ home country.

Yet as many parents of bilingual or multilingual children will know, that’s not always so straightforward, and persuading children to use and practise their mother tongue can be difficult. In the UAE, most if not all people speak English, which makes it easy to get by with English alone. There are, however, some simple ways to ensure your child learns and perfects their mother language.

Your mother language: why bother?

Maintaining your mother tongue is vital for the preservation of your cultural heritage and identity. It is through language that you transmit and pass on your culture and its values to your children for generations to come. It also helps to maintain and strengthen ties with family members, both immediate and extended. And the poems, proverbs, literature, phrases and idiosyncrasies of the language can shape your child’s very identity.

Yet there are even more benefits, because research shows that students who learn English while continuing to develop their native language have higher academic achievement later in life. Maintaining their mother language helps them to develop their critical thinking and literacy skills, and they tend to find it easier to go on and master a new language.

Tips for Parents

For the best chance of success, parents need to put extra effort into finding opportunities for their children to speak in their mother language. This might involve signing them up for mother tongue language classes or summer camps, organising playdates with children who speak the same language, hiring an au pair or nanny who is a native speaker, and travelling to countries that speak the language during holidays. It’s also a good idea to enrol children in classes such as music, drama, arts and crafts, cooking, and sports that are conducted in their mother tongue language.

Above all, parents need to be consistent in their approach. It’s about creating a habit of it, so that speaking in your mother tongue becomes the normal, everyday thing to do. You might therefore want to set family rules, like insisting all media consumed at home (TV, movies, books, etc.) should be in your language. You could also pretend that you don’t understand English very well, thereby encouraging your child to speak in their mother language – this is particularly effective with younger children.

Interactive reading is another great way to build mother language confidence and vocabulary. Read aloud with your child and ask them questions about the story and what they think might happen next. Can they make up an alternative ending, perhaps? Also ask them to repeat any new words after you; before long, they’ll be able to use them on their own. And remember to include poems, rhymes, songs and even jokes in your language. The secret is, whatever you do, do it in a fun and loving way.

Mother Language and the IB Curriculum  

I strongly believe that, of all the different curricula taught in UAE schools, it is the International Baccalaureate (IB) that lends itself best to the education of multilingual children. It’s not essential, of course, but it’s a plus. That’s because the IB purposefully sets out to develop open-minded global citizens. It encourages students to respect and understand other perspectives, cultures and languages, while IB students also develop the knowledge, skills and values they need to be part of today’s globalised and interconnected world. In this way, an IB learner believes and knows that he or she can make a real difference.

Last but not least, it definitely helps to have the full support of your child’s school. Some schools offer specialised mother language classes, specifically geared towards developing children’s understanding and knowledge of their mother tongue, while simultaneously celebrating the many other aspects of the given country – it’s culture, history, literature and cuisine – through events and other activities. These provide the ideal opportunity for children to not only perfect their language skills, but also socialise and interact with speakers of the same language and strengthen their sense of belonging and identity. Combined with everything that parents do at home and outside school, children are sure to become masters of their language.

Micheline Chaia is the Director of the Language Institute at GEMS World Academy – Dubai

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