Live and Learn: Speaking with my Child

DSCF9425 Head teacher Kru Dokmai with children, Panyaden School

What Language Should I Speak with my Child?

By Michel Thibeault, Panyaden Head Teacher

Michel Thibeault, Panyaden International School Head Teacher
Michel Thibeault

Your first language! If you speak more than one language you have probably noticed how difficult it can be to switch between the two when you have been using one for a certain amount of time. This is what could end up happening with your child.

We all want to help our children learn and often think it will help if we share our knowledge of a second language with them. Maybe it will. However, a language is more than a group of words. It’s a complex set of unwritten rules and codes of conduct which carry both emotional and cultural significance. This is the raw material from which we develop a sense of identity.

Professor J. Cummins, one of the world’s leading authorities on bilingual education and second language acquisition, recommends reading to your child in your first language to support full language development1. Parents should also try to make some time every evening to discuss with their child, in their native language, what she has done in school today: ask her to talk about the science experiment she did, question her about her understanding of historical information, have her explain how she has solved a maths problem, etc.

Unless we ourselves grew up with this second language and culture, it is difficult to offer the whole package to our child. He is more likely to end up with an empty shell, a sense of cultural void and an unsettling feeling: ‘’My mum’s (or dad’s) language must not be that important if she doesn’t bother teaching it to me. If my mum doesn’t bother, why should I put any effort into it?’’

There are two basic kinds of second language learners: the additive and subtractive type.

  • Subtractive bilingualism: When learning a second language interferes with the learning of a first language. The second language replaces the first language. This is commonly found in children who emigrate to a foreign country when they are young, especially in cases of orphans who are deprived of their first language input. This can be contrasted to additive bilingualism2.
  • Additive bilingualism: When learning a second language does not interfere with the learning of a first language. Both languages are developed.

As parents, we must sometimes learn to trust others to take care of our child’s second language education. At Panyaden, Thai teachers play this role and only speak Thai to the students while English teachers only speak English to them. Creating a clear context that says when one language or another is required helps children develop strong skills in both. With parents following the same direction, we are likely to achieve our goal of fully functional bilingual students by the end of Year 7.

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1Professor J. Cummins, Second language acquisition – essential information
2Boggles World ESL Glossary

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