Multilingualism: A Lasting Gift
CIS hosted a parent seminar by internationally renowned language experts Helena Curtain and Huali Xiong on Chinese and Multilingualism on 27 November at the Hilton Hotel. Our keynote speaker, Associate Professor Emerita Helena Curtain, from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is a pioneer in language immersion programmes on a global scale. Co-author of Languages and Children: Making the Match, a textbook used to train language teachers in Kindergarten to Grade 8, Professor Curtain emphasised during her speech the importance of multilingualism in early childhood education. CIS Head of Chinese, Ms. Huali Xiong who has taught both English and Chinese as foreign languages in her 30-year teaching career, highlighted the new approaches of teaching Chinese within CIS’s emerging bilingual programme.
“How to Raise a Multilingual Child?” was the primary question that Professor Curtain and Ms. Xiong addressed during their speeches to the CIS and larger parent community. Our language experts spoke about the nuts and bolts of multilingualism: they explained the changing methods in language learning (and teaching best practices) and focussed on the benefits of multilingualism in brain development, academic results, and career benefits. Before they told us all about the “how”, the two experts established the reasons of “why” today’s parents should raise multilingual children.
Ms. Xiong amusingly reflected why children of different ages wanted to learn Chinese:
When asked “Why are you learning Chinese?”, a primary aged student would say ‘because it’s fun’. A Middle School student would answer “because my mum told me to”, a high school student would confidently say “so I can get a good job”. Then Huali presented the question from a parent’s perspective. The parent would answer without hesitation: “I want my kids to be smarter, and learn a language that will give them a competitive edge.”
The reasons of “why multilingualism” were seemingly evident to our multilingual audience. What our parent attendees wanted to know was “how” their children could acquire Chinese (quickly), and what that looks like in a second language or immersion programme. Ms. Xiong addressed the parents’ questions with real life learning examples that contrasted the change in the approach to language learning and teaching over recent years, and what language teaching best practices look like.
In the not so olden days of teaching, students were taught these phrases and told to memorise them. They were required to learn sentences that they may never use in everyday conversations. These, however, were what our teachers told us we needed to do if we wanted to become fluent in another language. Oh, how they were wrong.
Language experts (including Professor Curtain) put a stop to this illogical learning journey and now focus teachers on “teaching through the language”. When teaching a foreign language, teachers no longer ask children to memorise words or sentences through artificial dialogues. A good language teacher will use best practices in educational research, and teach a new language through the culture of that language.
Language must be taught within a framework of understandable cultural context. When teaching Chinese, teachers will read stories (supported by illustrative graphics) that reflect the Chinese culture, rituals, customs and everyday life. Students are able to relate the words to the pictures and form a solid understanding of the language. For example, in bilingual classes at CIS, a picture story may illustrate how children celebrate Chinese New Year: what do children do during the New Year? Do they dress up and visit their grandparents? Do they pay visits to elderly neighbours? Do they call them ‘grandma’ and ‘grandpa’? Why do they get red envelopes from all these grandparents?
A four year old introduced to this story not only understands the cultural concepts, but he also masters the Chinese words that correspond with these concepts. He doesn’t seek to translate, as he understands the language and its context - through learning about Chinese tradition.
The cultural aspect of language learning also helps to promote open-mindedness, a characteristic unique to the IB learner profile at CIS. Open-minded children appreciate different cultures as well as their own. They try to understand different ways of interpretation and expression, and learn to understand different perspectives from an early age. These students can think critically, and respect different views and beliefs, and know how to see the world beyond black and white.
Curtain reinforced the message that language learning at an early age is very important in attaining fluency in the said language. Children are not only expected to know the language, but also to use it. Children initially understand more than they are able to vocalise, but as their understanding grows, learning and using new words come naturally, and they have no difficulty in pronunciation.
Some parents fear that introducing a new language to young children will slow their language acquisition in their mother tongue. To the contrary, studies demonstrate that learning concepts in another language will help a child’s understanding of similar concepts in their own language. They acquire understanding through at least two avenues to grasp the meaning of abstract terms. In other words, the more children master another language, the better they get in their own language. Simply put, they get smarter! Studies in neuroscience support this “smartness” through brain scan comparisons - bilingual brains are denser when compared to monolingual ones.
All of the research points to one thing - the best practices adopted in teaching languages at CIS will benefit students immensely as they are immersed in environments that focus on cultural appreciation, language acquisition, and eventually, fluency.