Strong first-language skills are key to learning second tongue

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 November, 2011, 12:00am


I have just moved my nine-year-old son from a local Cantonese-speaking school to an English-speaking international school. His English skills are a little weak. I have been speaking to him in English at home, but my own English is not very good. The new teacher said I should speak Cantonese with him at home. I am confused about how to help him.

It is not uncommon for parents to receive differing advice about how to help their children with language acquisition, so your uncertainty is understandable. More importantly, students themselves often get mixed messages that can leave them confused.

Having a strong first language is a crucial foundation for second-language skills. Also, the mother tongue embodies cultural elements that give a strong sense of personal identity and heritage and, therefore, should be nurtured.

At home, you should use the language in which you are most fluent and confident. The best course of action would probably be to converse in Cantonese for the most part, providing a good role model for your son. Create lots of opportunities to talk about topics covered in school so he is building academic and sophisticated language skills in Cantonese as well as English.

You can still help to reinforce and extend English-language skills at home. For example, provide opportunities for your son to use the language with proficient speakers in a natural environment. You can encourage play dates and other activities with English-speaking friends and watch good quality English-language television. Listening to the radio and audio books are other examples. A well-qualified tutor may be an alternative, if finances allow.

Provide as many different types of English reading materials at home as you can. Use books containing non-fiction, fiction and poetry as well as periodicals and comics. Encourage him to research areas of interest on the internet using child-friendly search engines. Discuss newspaper reports together. You may want to use one of the papers or supplements available specifically for children, as well as the adult versions. Remember to aim for reading confidence and fluency before expecting total accuracy.

Also encourage a wide range of writing experiences which are short, sharp and fun. Give the task a purpose such as e-mailing a friend, sending postcards to relatives abroad and making research notes for school projects. Again, aim for confidence and fluency. Remember that using language for meaningful communication is where real learning and understanding lie.

Do not underestimate the time it may take for your son to become completely fluent in English. Although social fluency is usually acquired within two years, academic fluency can take from five to seven years. Reading and writing are sophisticated learning processes and take time. Be patient with your son and support his language development at his own pace.

As you have enrolled him in an international school, he will not be the only second-language learner. Some schools encourage children to use their first language selectively to clarify key points or concepts with peers who speak the same language before reverting back to English. Restrictions are sometimes put in place if language is used as a tool of exclusion. This is a form of bullying.

Learning a second language can be difficult enough. Developing academic concepts through learning in a second language presents a huge challenge, particularly in the initial years.

But it can reap many rewards in the long run. Research shows that fluency in two or more languages is a definite advantage academically. And of course, it is also a valuable life skill for the future workplace, in a world where communication skills and flexibility are increasingly important.

Julie McGuire teaches at an international school