Dual language learning is a component of education that international parents are always confronted with when choosing an education route for their child. We delve into why dual language learning can benefit young children and why it’s important to consider having your child learn Mandarin during your time in China.
Bilingual children not only have excellent career prospects, but research has consistently shown that their cognitive abilities are often higher than those of monolingual learners. Dual language children can apply the skills developed in learning more than one language to many other areas of their learning and development. Imagine how a child who can think in two languages will approach solving problems in maths or creatively approach IB research.
Young children are highly receptive to language and should be exposed to second language learning as early as possible. At Dulwich for example, we take an active approach to learning, and see children at 2 years old starting to learn actively through self-exploration and guided inquiry. The foundation for young children to learn both Mandarin and English lies in this environment, giving them opportunities to speak with both adults and children during their play.
Dual language learners should be exposed to both languages in formal and informal contexts. Adults sometimes feel that children only learn when led by the teacher, but children need a variety of opportunities to talk in Mandarin and English.
Downsides and Upsides of Language Learning
Parents are sometimes concerned that dual language learning has a downside, or that it might slow down their children’s learning. Giving children opportunities to speak their first language in a dual language classroom allows them to remain secure in their mother tongue, and this in turn aids them in the acquisition of the second language. If the child’s use of the first language is not suppressed I do not see a downside to the dual language approach, and the advantages are significant. For a child to learn a second language, it is critical to place equal importance on the development of the first and second languages. We encourage parents to speak the child’s first language at home. We celebrate this important part of their identity by ensuring that they develop as speakers, readers and writers in their first language. In a society where both Mandarin and English are important, it is our duty to ensure that children attain the best possible learning outcomes in both languages.
Typically, children experience phases of language learning in their first and subsequent languages. In the first phase (‘the silent phase’), children are listening and absorbing a language before they start to speak. Like babies, they make sense of what they hear before they start to utter sounds, and then words. This can slow learning down temporarily, but research has shown that children who learn one or more languages are flexible thinkers and can retain information at a higher level. Parents may worry about a delay, but this is usually because the children are observing and internalizing what they hear, and they often show an understanding by following instructions before they answer!
The Ideal Environment and How to Help Them Learn
A language-rich environment encourages children to learn both English and Mandarin and gives them the confidence to speak in both. This should occur in a variety of contexts, according to their stage of language development.
Written materials that are visibly documented in the learning environment – such as children’s work, signs and labels—should be featured in both Chinese and English, and the culture of both languages should be equally celebrated. For instance, we give 3-year- olds pens, pencils and crayons as well as Chinese brushes and ink wash so that they can make emergent marks (the beginnings of letters or characters) in both languages. It is critical that children understand and explore the cultural context of a language through play or activities because this helps to shape and create their identity.
Access to both English-speaking and Chinese-speaking teachers reinforces children’s second language acquisition, and both languages will develop through exposure to a language-rich environment over the years. This exciting but rigorous approach ensures the children reach their potential. They are continually assessed so that learning is always challenging for them.
A range of planned and differentiated activities will also develop children’s listening, speaking, reading and writing skills. At Dulwich our Mandarin curriculum has been designed to combine the rigor required to learn the language with the more active approach to learning already experienced by children in other subjects. These activities take place not only within the curriculum, but also beyond the classroom, in sport, music, drama and art.
The key to immersion is presenting and sharing a wide range of thoughtfully planned activities, which takes place in both English and Mandarin and can be done together or alone. This layered approach, over time, helps children to develop their listening, speaking, reading and writing skills – and their confidence—
all at a time when they are most receptive to multiple languages.
Securing a Lead Language
Parents often ask whether children should have a lead language. Even children who are truly bilingual—those who can effortlessly switch from one language to another— may show a preference for one language at certain stages, often because of the language choice of their peers. Parents should absolutely support dual language learning, development and practice given the opportunity, but we do believe that children who are not bilingual should have a secure first language.
Parents of older students may have different anxieties. When children with limited English come to us after primary school, we have to assess how quickly we can develop their English. The main instructional language for the IGCSE and IB is English so we must know and ensure that they can manage this challenge.
Some of our older students, who speak English and Mandarin as well as their first language, often decide to apply to a university in their country of origin (such as Korea or Germany) where the language of instruction is neither English nor Mandarin. Hence, we constantly assess our students and their families’ needs to see if additional language programmes are required. As a result of this approach, next year we will offer supplemental German to students from Year 7 (age 12) at our Pudong campus to meet the needs of German students.
While we acknowledge the challenges of second language learning, I believe that the benefits of a dual language approach are far-reaching. Speaking two or more languages can only create a brighter future for our children, allowing them to connect linguistically and culturally to a broad and interesting network.
Kate Beith is one of the UK’s leading experts in Early Years education. As part of a team that has been developing the dual language approach at Dulwich College International, she has engaged in research with recognized academics in the field to continually evaluate and develop practice.