Bilingualism

By Jean-Yves Vesseau, Head of the French Section

As the Head of a school running a bilingual programme*, the question I probably get asked the most is: “How can I be sure that my child is going to learn, and be able to speak, two or even three languages?” The answer I give the families is twofold. First, we need to debunk the myth that learning a language is a miracle. It is in fact anything but, although I do agree that sometimes the speed at which some of our students achieve proficiency in French is mind blowing. In reality, a very scientific explanation lies behind it: children’s brains are made to learn languages. Or, to be more precise, their brains have a learning algorithm that works at full throttle to help them make sense of the world around them (think about it for a second: everything is yet to be learnt) and this algorithm is at its most efficient when handling languages. Tests show that children are able to classify and retain information at a level far superior than us adults. That is also why children who learn additional languages do not have ‘foreign’ accents; as far as they are concerned, a word is not defined as an English, a French or a Chinese one, but as a piece of data to be appropriated, stored, classified and ready to use at a later date.

What’s even more impressive is the fact that the algorithm never rests and is active at night when children are sleeping. It selects and then replays what has been learnt during the day (remarkably the algorithm is able to select and replay only what has been learnt and not just everything that happened during the daytime). In essence, children never stop learning.

Once you have considered this, the question that schools – and families – should ask themselves is no longer: “is my child going to be able to learn multiple languages”, but “why do we not take advantage of this algorithm and teach more languages – and in fact more of everything – to our young children?”

This brings me to the second part of my answer to families, as it pertains to the role of the school. While you know that children are perfectly equipped to learn, they still need to be fed the right amount of knowledge and skills, so that we can make the most of their abilities and make sure they use their potential fully. In other words, it’s all about nurturing; adding culture to the wonder of nature.

To achieve this, it takes a team of teachers who understand what is at stake and are willing to work hand in hand to ensure the children in their care are well nurtured. This is the case in the French Section of TES, where French and English teachers share common activities and themes, so that topics, words, and concepts first tackled in French are then continued in English or vice versa; it is our belief that no language should have the upper hand in a truly bilingual school.

Does this lead to confusion? The temptation for adults to apply our own experience of language learning to children leads to false assumptions. Differentiating between languages is all very clear in children’s minds; they know exactly which member of the French Section team speaks and teaches which language – there is never any confusion for them about which language to use when they address our staff. It is an enviable and astounding thing to see a seven-year-old ask a new classmate which language they are most comfortable using – French, English or Chinese – and to realise that, not only do they have that tri-lingual toolkit at their disposal, but that they are also considerate of other children’s linguistic capabilities. In our experience, issues that may arise occur at a later age, when children start writing longer descriptive sentences and paragraphs. At times, older students write in French using English syntax (e.g. the adjective always before the noun, which is not necessarily the case in French). It is then up to our teachers to work on these particular structural confusions when they occur. Parents are sometimes concerned that their children’s level of French will not be up to scratch when it comes to the rigorous academic requirements of French secondary school. On the contrary, our data shows that the vast majority of French Section students who simultaneously learnt French and English in Primary are able to perform extremely well in all subjects and follow three literature curricula in parallel (French, English and Chinese) when they reach our secondary school.

In summary, families should definitely consider a school that offers a bilingual programme, such as the French Section of TES, as we are able to rationally enhance children’s innate capacities to learn and speak languages. The caveat, however, is that the algorithm performs most effectively in young children under the age of seven. It then gradually slows down for the rest of our lives, with data showing that learning languages is already an arduous challenge for a teenager. So I would certainly encourage you to enroll your children at an early age and give them the opportunity to make the most of their language learning potential, preparing them for the multicultural and multilingual world that the world of tomorrow is going to be.

* The French Section of Taipei European School runs a bilingual programme with children learning French and English from Petite Section (3 years old). Daily Chinese language and culture classes begin in Moyenne Section (4 years old).

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