Workshops for parents bringing up bilingual children

Published 04 March 2011

lizIn families that speak a language other than English at home, encouraging children to use that language can actually help them in developing their English language skills.

This is one of the facts about bringing up bilingual children that Dr Liz Ellis will discuss in a free workshop for parents and carers to be held at Ben Venue Public School, Armidale, from 9.30 am to 1 pm on Wednesday 9 March.

“Sometimes people wrongly think that if children have another language it will stop them learning English properly,” said Dr Ellis, who is a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of New England. “In fact it will actually help with English as long as both languages are supported at home and at school.”

Her advice to parents is to make the use of the home language simply “a part of family life”, providing exposure to it in “meaningful, interesting contexts”, rather than something that is formally taught. “Children learn language through meaningful interaction with people who love them,” she said. “And at school, it helps if teachers welcome the child’s home language into the classroom.”

Dr Ellis (pictured here) points out that growing up with two languages assists children’s intellectual, social and emotional development, and stimulates their creativity. “Seeing the world through the contrasting perspectives of two languages can enhance a child’s cognitive flexibility,” she said, “as well as their ability to interact appropriately in a variety of social and family contexts.”

She urges parents to be “persistent but flexible” in their use of the home language with their children, and not to try and force a child to use it when they’re going through the typical “negative” phase. “You can expect them to show some resistance to speaking the home language – often during the teenage years,” she said, “but you can still continue talking to them in it. And attitudes change; later on, children often regret not having persisted with their family language. It can open up all sorts of doors for them in terms of travel and work.”

Dr Ellis is particularly interested in finding out what support is needed for families who are bringing up bilingual children in regional areas, and helping them to form their own networks. She has conducted workshops on the NSW South Coast and Central Coast, and noted that, on the Central Coast for example, 102 languages are spoken. “But if families belong to a language group that lacks a ‘critical mass’ of speakers, they can often feel isolated,” she added.

Following the workshop at Ben Venue Public School on Wednesday 9 March, there will be a similar workshop in Tamworth on Wednesday 16 March. To book a place in either of these workshops, e-mail Leesa Moore: leesa.moore1@det.nsw.edu.au. Booking is essential. There is also the possibility of running a workshop at a later date for people who can’t attend the scheduled events.