Author: Narae Hyun

Speech-Language Pathologist, Clinical Psychologist

with Ronni Rowland, Writer

“He only talks in his native language in my class and doesn’t want to speak English.”

 “She just stares at me after I ask her a question.”

These situations are familiar in multilingual environments like Shanghai’s international schools. “Second-language acquisition involves common processes, such as a period of silence, mixing two languages while communicating, or loss of the first language,” explains Narae Hyun, speech language pathologist and clinical psychologist with ELG. “Some of these processes can be uncomfortable for teachers or caregivers to observe, but they are a natural part of bilingualism.”

Here are 5 tips for effectively teaching bilingual students:

1. Recognize a language difference versus a language disorder.
A language disorder is not language-specific. Rather, a child with a language disorder exhibits significant deficits in both the native language and new language. By comparison, a language difference simply shows a variation in the use of a child’s second language compared to monolingual peers.

2. Encourage both languages.
Creating an “English only” policy in a school or classroom can produce the opposite effect – children may feel discouraged and helpless when trying to communicate. “Encourage both languages instead,” urges Narae. “Children excel when they can utilize their entire ‘portfolio’ of language skills.”

3. Use a flexible, dynamic approach.
Encourage children to use their entire linguistic and semiotic (signs, symbols and images) repertoire to transact and make sense of written texts. For example, permit children to discuss questions with others using their first language, or let them use a translation app. As their second language skills develop, these tools will be needed less and less.

4. Create an empowering learning environment.
Expect and respect a “silent period” during second language acquisition. Children are learning and absorbing information even when they are quiet! You can offer non-verbal ways for students to demonstrate knowledge such as through drawings, posters, or play-acting. Narae suggests you “encourage children and parents to read assigned books or discuss academic topics at home in their native language, as well as finding ways to value the home culture and first language.”

5. Use multiple modalities.
Provide children with a variety of ways to access the new language. For example, picture dictionaries and “visual vocabulary” posters build success! Children can immediately understand the meaning of new words with the help of images. Other helpful modes of learning include gesturing or using translation apps.

Children often feel more comfortable using a second language when they can use their native language as a support. When families’ home cultures are valued and respected, bilingual students thrive.