The benefits of learning in a second language outweigh the negatives

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 August, 2015, 10:30pm
UPDATED : Monday, 17 August, 2015, 10:30pm

My eight-year-old son has been attending a Cantonese school but has just got a place at an international school. His English skills are not that good, and I'm worried that he won't keep up with his classmates. He is upset about leaving his friends and doesn't want to go.

First of all, the international school must have considered your son's English skills to be good enough to access the curriculum or it would not have given him a place.

Moving to a new school can be daunting for any child, especially if it means being separated from long-time friends, and the added issue of being educated in a different language may be challenging initially. However, children tend to be more adaptable than we give them credit for. Your son is still young, and when he is immersed in an English-speaking environment every day, he will soon improve and become more confident. Research shows that social language develops relatively quickly, so this should help him to fit in and make friends. Academic language develops more slowly, over a number of years, so he will need support and positive encouragement from both you and his teachers.

These days more parents in Hong Kong are choosing to give their children a bilingual, international-style education by enrolling them into the English-speaking system. So your son will surely not be alone in being a second-language learner. I have witnessed many children in your son's position who have settled into their new school very quickly, developing friendships and language fluency over time.

Don't worry if your English is less fluent. The quality of the language interaction is important. Try to use rich vocabulary with your son in several circumstances. Also, be a good listener and help him build sophisticated, academic language in Cantonese as well as English. Encourage him to keep up friendships from his old school for social and language reasons.

Also, some parents find that the longer their child is in the international system, the less they want to speak their first language, and they also start to take on different cultural values. Ideally, both languages should be given a sense of worth and importance in your son's life.

Reading plays a very supportive role in language learning and is an excellent source of help in vocabulary acquisition. Provide different types of English reading materials at home.

There are also other things you can do to help extend and reinforce English skills at home. Watching good English-language television and listening to the radio and audio books are valuable. Popular music and films are also a good incentive.

Encourage your son to use the internet to inquire into areas of interest using child-friendly search engines and discuss topical newspaper articles together. He could subscribe to Young Post, this paper's supplement for children.

Meaningful and relevant writing tasks that are short, sharp and fun will also help your son develop his English skills. Reading and writing are sophisticated processes and therefore take time to develop and embed.

Your son is still young and will learn quickly, but do not underestimate the time it may take for him to become fluent in English. Try to be patient and support his language development at his own pace.

If parents plan carefully, many rewards can be reaped in the long run, such as better self-esteem and social connections. Research shows that fluency in two or more languages develops the brain in ways that are a definite advantage academically.

Julie McGuire teaches at a local primary school