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February 12, 2019
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Support for bilingual families in Cambridge

Guest blogger Elisabeth Klaar works as a freelancer at Oak Tree Studio  in Cambridge. She was brought up in Germany and the UK and is bilingual herself.  She has two daughters, has lived abroad with her family (in France and Germany) and travels regularly to India to visit family.

Moving house and starting a new life in a new country brings with it many exciting new beginnings – new friendships, new jobs, a new home and perhaps, a new language to learn. However, you may also be concerned about what you, or your children, might lose out on because of your move. One of the chief issues parents worry about, along with friendships and settling into a new school system, is that children will lose touch with a language they have learnt. Early childhood is a vital window for language learning and parents are rightly keen to preserve any language skills their child has acquired during this time. Being bilingual or multilingual is also thought to confer lifelong benefits, (1)another reason to help your child retain a language.

Fortunately, in Cambridge we have a number of ‘community language schools’ and private language classes or clubs that can help you keep a language going, even if it’s not your home language. They provide crucial support and encouragement to families with more than one language. They may even help you settle in your new home by providing you with new friends with similar cultural knowledge, experiences and concerns. The networks that form around community language schools can lead you to babysitters who speak the language your child is most comfortable in, au pair recommendations, and new friendships.

Bilingual/multilingual families and children

Children grow up bi- or multi-lingual for many reasons including:

  • One or both parents speak a language different from the one spoken in their local environment.
  • Parents’ work assignments may have led to the child learning second or third language outside the home – this is common in Cambridge.

Children may have learnt a language in school, or in friendship groups, different from both their home language and the language in their local environment. It is important to feel confident in your local environment and learn the language that will enable you to get around on a daily basis. However, keeping other languages going is an excellent life skill that can help your child’s brain development, cognitive and social skills. (2) Superior social skills of bilinguals (3)connect them with wider family. This gives them a greater sense of confidence and cultural knowledge and opens up job prospects for them in the future. 

Community language schools

Many parents in Cambridge have faced the dilemma of trying to keep a language alive ‘in the home’. Sometimes facing reluctant children who ‘answer’ in English. Others mix their languages after they start to attend an English medium school during the day and speak English with their peer group. This is completely normal and nothing to worry about (4) per se. However, ensuring your child has access to people outside the family who share their language can help them understand the usefulness of speaking another language.

Many parents have responded by joining with others to create ‘community language schools’ run by parents, usually for a session each week. Typically, all the teaching is done in the other language and the teaching is geared to native, or near native, speaking children. The age ranges covered vary from school to school, and some are part of wider networks that start with baby and toddler groups for very young children and their parents. The teachers range from volunteers to paid experts. Parents are often involved in managing the school as an association/community group registered in the UK. Some have connections and support from relevant embassies, but many thrive on parent power alone. Other families group around a teacher who runs their own class, managing room bookings and planning the curriculum themselves.

Festivals and other cultural links

A lot of the schools offer another benefit – connections with wider cultural practices. Some celebrate festivals associated with that language and culture. Some tie in with other groups (mosques, churches, temples, cultural associations) related to that culture to celebrate festivals or other events. The German Saturday School, Samstagsschule Cambridge for example, celebrates ‘Einschulung’ (first day of school) with a ‘Schultüte’ just as you would in a German school. They also have informal links with the local German language Evangelische Kirche (Protestant Church) and hold a big lantern festival and procession in November to mark St Martin’s Day. 

German Saturday School

Xaobin Chen  is a computational linguist who speaks Chinese at home with his wife, also Chinese, and their two children. They recently lived in Tuebingen in Germany for four years and his 9-year-old daughter attended German kindergarten and school there. She speaks native-level German. The family were wondering how to support this at home without either parent being a native German speaker. When they arrived in Cambridge they registered for the Deutsche Samstagsschule (German Saturday School) and their daughter now attends regularly. Xaobin says, “The ‘Samstagsschule’ is very well-organized. It provides my daughter with a great opportunity to meet other German natives and German speaking children in Cambridge. This helped a lot and reduced the cultural shock she was experiencing when we first moved here.” 

French Saturday School

Sylvie Russell is French and married to a Scot with two daughters attending an English-medium school during the week. When her daughters were under 4 years old, she took them every Monday to a French toddler playgroup, 123 soleil. It’s run by parent volunteers aiming to create a space for french-speaking families. It’s a great way to meet new parents and for families who have just arrived in Cambridge to join a welcoming network. Sylvie was also part of the first team who created Les Petits Cameleons (French Saturday School). The school is now very well established and a great boost for bilingual children. Both French and English are spoken at home but Sylvie is consistent in speaking to her children in French. It’s paid off – they are confident French speakers who can chat comfortably with family and friends when in France.

Italian classes in Cambridge

Paola lives in Cambridge with her husband and 6-year old son, having moved here to work at the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2011. At home they speak Italian as a family. Since Leonardo has been attending school, she has wanted to ensure he gets ‘Italian input’ from others, not just his parents. She found a local group in north Cambridge run by Easy Italian They provide private lessons to groups of children of different ages and abilities.

There are some children learning the language from scratch and others who have a good level of Italian from home. The teacher manages this by segmenting the children according to ability rather than age. This isn’t a community/parent-run school, but it does bring Italian families into contact with each other. Paola says ‘We really value the fact that Leonardo gets contact with other Italian speaking children. Just learning a language from your parents can make it seem a little boring and grown up, at times. A qualified teacher is much better placed than we are to teach him how to read and write in Italian! The classes he attends after school on a week day provide a sense of fun and play. And importantly for us as a family, contact with other local families who share our language’.   

Reach out and make contact

The links below will take you to a list of the community language schools, and hopefully you’ll find the language you’re looking for on that list. If not then why not consider contacting Cambridge Bilingualism Network to gain advice on connecting with other families looking for support with the same language in Cambridge – who knows, you may found the next community language school yourself! 

If you’re keen to progress at home but running out of ideas for how to make bilingalism even more fun for your children, check out Virginie Ragenaud’s motivating book, packed with reasons for keeping ‘an extra’ language going, and full of excellent suggestions and tips for fun ways to support your children at various stages of their development. 

Links

The University of Cambridge’s School of Education provides very useful links to local community-run language schools for children and other useful resources.

Cambridge Bilingualism Network also provides resources for parents and professionals and organises talks.

Cambridge Bilingual Groups support local groups and schools for bilingual children in and around Cambridge. Get in touch if you are looking for a local language group. They offer 1:1 support for managers and leaders of existing and developing groups and termly networking meetings with other groups covering things like teacher recruitment and statutory responsibilities, where to find insurance etc, and termly teacher training events.  

Resources

  • 1. BBC Future Story
  • 2. Psychology Today Blog
  • 3. New York Times Sunday Opinion
  • 4. The Independent Lifestyle pages

Books

Virginie Raguenaud's, Bilingual By Choice which you can buy at Hive.co.uk 


Author

Elisabeth Klaar | Oak Tree Studio www.oaktreestudio.co.uk info@oaktreestudio.co.uk