Linguistic expert Troy Titterington on making the most of a bilingual education

With another school year underway, newly arrived expats may be feeling the impact from the decision to move to a foreign country and put their children into a local school where instruction is not in their mother tongue.

Research from Jim Cummins at the University of Toronto claims that it takes five to seven years “to become academically fluent in a foreign language”, and one to three years to become fluent in social contexts. However, to achieve this, 30% of the student’s waking hours needs to be exposed to the other language.

Parents spend a lot of time weighing the pros and cons of a bilingual education, yet the difficult part is not the decision-making process but in setting realistic bilingual goals, both short and long-term, for your child.

American Troy Titterington, 52, is the English as an Additional Language Coordinator at the American School of Paris (ASP) where 47% of the 800 enrolment do not speak English as a first language.

Troy Titterington“The better you know your goals, the better your chances of winning the bilingual battle,” says Troy Titterington

Although Troy was brought up in a monolingual household, he had powerful travel experiences in high school that set him off on a linguistic journey, resulting in a Masters of Applied Linguistics from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, a graduate school of Middlebury College, plus 20 years abroad teaching at universities and schools in Japan, Mexico, the Czech Republic and Vietnam. He and his wife and two children came to Paris three years ago.

Troy assesses the proficiency of the ASP’s non-native English-speaking students and, coordinating with the admin, teachers and parents, helps lay out a plan pupils will need to successfully achieve a bilingual education.

“There are multiple factors to consider that involve family, environment and development,” says Troy. “It’s a big responsibility to bring your child up multilingually. These are critical years of education but, if you plan well, the benefits – the social gains, the professional gains, the cognitive gains – are well documented.”

So just what type of support system needs to be in place? Troy explains: “Well, you need a ‘backwards plan’. This takes some work, but essentially it’s the long-haul vision of your child’s education, what I refer to as a language acquisition plan: What do you want your child to be able to do in English? In French? Do you want your child to be socially French, with some literacy skills, or to eventually attend a French university? Will you be moving back to your home country, and if so, will your son or daughter be orally competent but lacking reading and writing skills? Maybe you want a balanced bilingual child? These are the key questions parents have to ask from the get go. From here, time frames – ‘milepost assessments’ – need to be developed.”

In Troy’s experience, the better you know your goals, the better your chances of winning the bilingual battle. Here’s what he suggests to get parents started:

• What resources do you have at home?

• What community resources are available? (“The parents’ relationship with the community and the language is important,” he stresses.)

• What actions do you need to take to have quantity input/output to achieve that 30% exposure to the new language?

Troy points out that you need to find out what motivates – not forces – your child, and make the intrinsic connection with who the child is and the journey he or she is embarking upon, making sure the child understands why a new language is important. If your child becomes submerged in a bilingual situation, even the best-laid plans will be ruined.

“The stress of learning a new language is frustrating and there needs to be a bridge of comprehension within the academic culture, meaning teachers who are trained to deal with an adjusting child. That being said, it’s important to recognise that mistakes are going to be made and that no matter what the linguistic goals, children need downtime to play.”

Language learning is a long process and parents play an active role. Lay out your plans, look at your resources within the community and at school, and adjust your goals accordingly. This journey needs to be fun and meaningful, and as a parent you can’t fake your input: reflect on your own effort in meeting that 30% exposure, and your child will learn by example.

For 50 years, Mougins International School has been teaching the British curriculum, along with Sport, Art, Music and Drama, to students aged 3 to 18 years. They have 490 students and over 40 nationalities, with instruction in English. See www.mougins-school.com

Écoles Internationales Bilingues offer a fully bilingual – 50% English, 50% French – curriculum, from kindergarten to high school. With a multidisciplinary programme, they have 600 students in their schools in Nice, Cagnes and Pegomas and can organise individualised courses to facilitate the integration of foreign-language pupils. See www.ecolesbilingues.fr

Rita RosenbackIn 2012, Rita Rosenback, author of Bringing up a Bilingual Child, launched www.multilingualparenting.com, to offer online “support and advice for families with more than one language”.

Rosenback, who speaks Finnish, English, Swedish and German, and is a mother of two multilingual children, provides the e-tools for parents to get in touch with other families experiencing bilingual issues via blogs, user forums and the newly added Coaches section, where your questions will be answered directly by experts. Memberships allow access to resources like podcasts and family coaching.


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