Health & Wellbeing

Bilingual learning benefits second and third generation children

Bilingual learning benefits second and third generation children
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March 13, 2007 Bilingual learning can provide substantial benefits for second and third generation children whose families speak a language other than English, according to ESRC-funded research by Goldsmiths, University of London. Even when children have grown up with English as their stronger language, using both languages aids cognitive development and strengthens their identities as learners.

A conference has been called on Friday 23 March 2007 to consider the implications of the research. Lid King, Director of the National Languages Strategy, and Jill Catlow of the Primary National Strategy are amongst the speakers. The conference is jointly organised by Goldsmiths, University of London and London Borough of Tower Hamlets Children's Services, who are partners in the research.

Dr Charmian Kenner of Goldsmiths explains: “Children who live their lives bilingually can access the curriculum through both languages. Learning a mathematical concept in Bengali and English, for example, deepens understanding as ideas are transferred between languages. Or children can compare how metaphors are constructed in a Bengali poem and its English equivalent. The children in our project expressed a strong desire to use their community language in school and teachers were able to tap into their pupils' full range of cultural knowledge.”

The research was conducted with children from Years 2, 4 and 6 in two Tower Hamlets primary schools. Children were observed learning their mother tongue in community language class. The research team then worked with community language teachers, mainstream teachers and bilingual assistants to develop bilingual activities as part of the primary school curriculum.

Children who were particularly successful at mainstream school were found to also have a strong background in mother tongue. They showed a high degree of linguistic awareness and could translate rapidly between languages. Tower Hamlets' own statistics demonstrate that pupils who attend mother tongue classes perform better in Key Stage One and Key Stage Two national curriculum tests than pupils who do not. However, the research discovered that many second and third generation children are in danger of losing these skills if they do not have opportunities to develop their mother tongue through academic work at school.

Charmian Kenner comments: “It is crucial that schools support children's mother tongue through bilingual learning activities connected with the mainstream curriculum. Now that the National Languages Strategy promotes early language learning and the Primary National Strategy recognises the value of bilingualism, policymakers need to encourage good practice in schools. Otherwise the potential benefits of bilingual learning will be lost to future generations.”

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