In a world in which multilingualism is a prized skill, children living in Beijing are in a prime position to become proficient in one or both of the necessary languages of the future: Mandarin and English. The boom in bilingual programs in Beijing is a response to the demand for bilingual education. But raising a bilingual child is not as simple as throwing him or her into a classroom for a daily dose of Mandarin. Raising a bilingual child takes patience, effort, and structure. Luckily, there are a myriad of schools and support systems in Beijing that support dual languages.
The Perks of Multilingualism
The most obvious benefit of multilingualism is the prospect of future opportunities in either language. There is plenty of research that shows there are numerous cognitive benefits to being raised in a bilingual environment, and cognitive flexibility is one of them. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to mentally switch between two ideas, or think about multiple things simultaneously, and bilinguals outperform their monolingual peers in these tasks. James Helbringer, the assistant principal at Beijing International Bilingual Academy (BIBA), explains, “Bilingual children are able to use both sides of their brains, so they’re able to think simultaneously in different languages.”
Additionally, studies have shown that bilingual children exhibit greater executive control throughout childhood and adulthood. Such functions include focusing attention, self-control, and strategizing. Because bilingual brains are adept at switching languages, they are more adept at switching tasks, learning additional languages, and efficiently processing information. The benefits extend throughout life, from early childhood brain development, and potentially even into older age, as bilingual brains are able to better stave off age-related cognitive decline.
What’s Right for Your Child?
Parents considering a bilingual program for their child should step back and consider their plans and goals. “Know what your expectation is going into a [bilingual or]dual immersion program,” says Amy Loveday Hu, principal at 3e International School, which offers a dual immersion program. “If you’ve got a long-term goal of maintaining both the languages, then it’s a good choice,” says Loveday Hu, but she cautions that for families planning under two or three years of exposure to either or both of the languages, a bilingual or dual immersion setting may not be the ideal situation. “It is quite stressful for children if they come in not understanding [one of the languages], and they’re not going to maintain fluency if they’re only here for one or two years. Then they’ve experienced a lot of stress that is possibly needless.”
Another factor to consider is the age of your child. “The earlier, the better,” says Helbringer. Virtually all educators agree that the younger a child is, the easier it is for him to grasp new languages. Once a child is about 6 years old, or just after kindergarten, it gets harder to place him in a bilingual program. Helbringer explains: “[The older the child gets,] the more complicated the material gets, so if you’re trying to understand the language and grasp the concept, it’s difficult.”
Earlier might better, but it’s important to remember that it’s different for every child. Kristin Damberger, BIBA’s curriculum coordinator, clarifies: “It depends a lot on the student’s work ethic and level of knowledge in their first language. With older students, it takes a lot more effort and personal drive to acquire a second language, whereas with younger kids it just happens naturally.”
But is it ever too late to place your child in a bilingual program? “It depends on what you want,” says Helbringer. “If you want a child [who has a low level of English]to get into an English-speaking university and you enter a bilingual program in tenth grade, it would be too late. It’s hard even in third or fourth grade to come in with no English; it’s going to take a couple of years in English as a Second Language to get into the regular class.” Ideally, he suggests starting a child in a bilingual program before second grade.
What to Look For
Paula Phipps, primary coordinator at Yew Chung International School of Beijing (YCIS Beijing), encourages parents looking at bilingual programs to examine the feel and atmosphere of the potential school. “The child needs to feel comfortable,” she urges, and the parent should make sure that all the teachers are certified. Robyn Hamilton, also a primary coordinator at YCIS Beijing, stresses looking at “how much time is spent on each language. I just don’t think that you can easily learn [a second language]from an hour a day.” It’s also important to find a school that emphasizes the cultural components of the teaching languages. Also, look at where the standards for the Chinese section of the curriculum are coming from, and make sure it’s a legitimate source.
Parents should also check that the school is accredited or in the process of being accredited. For instance, YCIS lists five accreditations on their website including the Council for International Schools (CIS) and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC); and BIBA is in the process of obtaining its Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accreditation.
Scores of Beijing schools bill themselves as “bilingual,” but it doesn’t mean the program is actually bilingual. There are a number of permutations of ways to teach a bilingual curriculum, and though BIBA, YCIS, and 3e all have different structures, all of their programs foster bilingual students.
At both YCIS Beijing and BIBA, 50 percent of class time is spent in English, while the other half is spent in Chinese. After kindergarten and until about age 12, at both schools, the split becomes 70 percent English and 30 percent Chinese. At BIBA, Grades 1 through 5 have an English homeroom teacher who co-teaches math with a Chinese math teacher, and each class also has a Chinese language arts teacher. BIBA uses the Chinese National Curriculum to teach math, and a curriculum based on the California Common Core Standards for other subjects.
YCIS Beijing has a co-teaching program, which means that the classrooms have one Chinese teacher and one English teacher with the 50-50 split in kindergarten and 10 co-taught periods in primary grades thereafter. The co-teachers are equal – both are certified teachers, and they both share the running of the classroom and the lesson planning. YCIS Beijing uses its own curriculum in addition to the National Curriculum of England (NCE), and being bilingual is crucial to their identity. Hamilton explains: “We firmly believe that English and Chinese are two of the most important languages in the world. [Being bilingual] allows students to move freely between cultures.”
3e International School implements a dual immersion program. Students from kindergarten until Grade 4 get a 50-50 split of English and Chinese every day, with children spending half the day in the English classroom with two English teachers, and the other half of the day in the Chinese classroom with two Chinese teachers. Nursery is the only exception; in that age group, each classroom has one English teacher and one Chinese teacher at all times. Loveday Hu explains 3e’s curriculum is one that “explores a lot of existing curriculums. It’s more American, but it’s called DAP, Developmentally Appropriate Practice.” The curriculum is research-based and subject to review every two years by a curriculum committee made up of parents, teachers, and administrators. “What we’re really focusing on is English and Chinese, the two cultures, and building the social and emotional skills for children,” says Loveday Hu.
My Child Is in a Bilingual Program. Now What?
Once the decision is made to place a child in a bilingual or dual immersion program, the hard part is just beginning. Especially if either of the parents do not speak one or both of the school’s teaching languages, it can be hard to know if a child is thriving or struggling. What’s a parent to do?
“Don’t expect your child to be completely fluent and join the United Nations within six months,” cautions Loveday Hu. Learning a language takes time, and it’s crucial not to pressure or overwork a child. “When children first start a bilingual program, they will be tired,” Hamilton cautions. “Don’t sign them up for loads of clubs. Don’t pressure them to do two hours of piano or hire a tutor because you’re worried they need to catch up. Learning in two languages all day is tiring, so we suggest that students go to bed a bit earlier for the first couple of months. Parents need to acknowledge that it’s hard work.”
Helbringer adds: “The biggest thing is being supportive and not pushing it, because it takes time.” Be there for your child, and spend as much time with them as possible. Reading in your home language is an excellent way to be supportive while encouraging kids to develop language skills. “Having confidence in the language at home helps with new languages, because if you don’t have confidence at home, it makes everything else difficult,” advises Loveday Hu.
If each parent has a different mother tongue, the best practice is to have each parent only speak in that language to the child. For example, if Mom speaks Chinese and Dad speaks English, Mom only speaks in Chinese and Dad only speaks in English. This helps kids compartmentalize, and can give added reinforcement. If Mom and Dad have the same native language, it’s a good idea to set the example of language learning for your kids. If you don’t speak Chinese and your child is learning it, it’s okay to try to speak some Chinese to them and acknowledge that learning another language is hard. But if they don’t want to speak Chinese in a home where English is the language, don’t push it. Children associate people and places with particular languages, and children may resist speaking a language at home that isn’t usually spoken there.
To keep tabs on progress, parents should be attentive when their children are doing their homework. Damberger points out that teachers should be assigning homework that students can complete independently. If you notice that your child is having problems completing work on his own, don’t be alarmed; instead, communicate with the teacher. Teachers at YCIS Beijing, 3e, and BIBA keep careful tabs on their students, and if there’s an issue, the teacher will reach out to the parent, or address the parent’s concerns. Then, listen to what the teachers tell you. “What you see at home is a tiny fraction of what is actually going on,” says Loveday Hu. “Good teachers will always be very honest with parents and will never pretend something is fine when it’s not.”
A persistent worry among parents is that if their children are in a bilingual environment, their development will be slower than that of their peers. However, research refers to this mindset as the “myth of the monolingual brain.” Actual findings show that language acquisition in early childhood develops largely at the same rate in bilingual children as in monolingual children. While early speech development may lag slightly in bilinguals, it isn’t permanent, and is considered inconsequential to the ultimate acquisition of phonological skills.
It is fairly common for children in a bilingual program to go through a silent phase in the first year or so. This is normal, Hamilton says, as the child is probably a bit overwhelmed and is just listening. There are a number of reasons for the silence. First, your child is building his receptive language, as he can’t express himself until he does so. He’s also training his mouth muscles for the sounds of a new language, and maybe he’s also trying to internalize the routine of his new school. The length of a silent period varies by child and language exposure, and while its length is generally between two and six months, it can last up to a year.
Also don’t become alarmed if your child starts a sentence, thought, or conversation in one language and finishes it in another. This is called code switching, and it’s normal. In fact, it’s probably a good indicator that your child is absorbing both languages and thinking in both of them. Children will generally start code switching after one or two years in a bilingual or dual immersion environment.
It’s easy for parents to feel helpless when their child is in a bilingual program, especially if the parent doesn’t speak one of the classroom languages. One of the best things parents can do in this case is to arrange play dates with their peers. This will help them build a social language and help them learn the idioms and slang that will make them sound like a native speaker.
When parents want to know how long it will take for their child to become bilingual, many educators are reluctant to nail down a number, because there is no single exemplary amount of time across the board. Factors to take into account include the age the child entered the bilingual program, the amount of time spent on each language, independent motivation, what languages are spoken at home, and of course, the different learning speeds and styles of each child. To become truly bilingual, a child can need between three and seven years in a bilingual environment. Like any journey in education, there will be challenges along the way, but with support, patience, and guidance, your child can – and will – thrive.
3e International School 3e 国际学校
9-1 Jiangtai Xilu, Chaoyang District (6437 3344, email@example.com) www.3einternationalschool.org 朝阳区将台西路9-1号
Beijing International Bilingual Academy (BIBA) 海嘉国际双语学校
5 Yumin Dajie, Houshayu, Shunyi District (8041 0390, firstname.lastname@example.org) www.bibachina.org 顺义区后沙峪裕民大街5号
Yew Chung International School of Beijing (YCIS Beijing) 北京耀中国际学校
East gate of Honglingjin Park, 5 Houbalizhuang, Chaoyang District (8583 3731, email@example.com) www.ycis-bj.com 朝阳区后八里庄5号红领巾公园东门
The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual
Early Childhood Bilingualism: Perils and Possibilities
Journal of Applied Research on Learning
Vol. 2, Special Issue, Article 2, April 2009
Other Schools with Bilingual Options
Beanstalk International Bilingual School (BIBS) 青苗国际双语学校 (p40)
Children’s International Bilingual Academy (CIBA) (p65)
Daystar Academy 启明星双语学校 (66)
Eduwings Kindergarten 金翼德懿幼儿园 (p68)
Etonkids Bilingual Kindergartens 伊顿 国际双语幼儿园 (p69)
Etonkids International Kindergarten 伊顿国际幼儿园 (p70)
The Family Learning House 家育苑 (p71)
House of Knowledge International Kindergarten (HoK) 好思之家 国际幼儿园 (p74)
International Montessori School of Beijing (MSB) 北京蒙台梭利国际学校 (p78)
Ivy Bilingual Schools 艾毅双语幼儿园 (p80)
Russian Children’s Education Center (p93)
Springboard International Bilingual Schools (SIBS) 君诚国际双语学校 (p95)
photo courtesy of 3e