Children at bilingual schools – Tips on how to best support your child

It’s an exciting time in the field of language education: bilingual immersion education is a model that can assist schools in realising children’s multilingual potential. But what exactly is an immersion programme, how can I help as a parent and what does it mean for my child? Helena Curtain, an expert in language and immersion education, answers some important questions regarding immersion programmes

How do immersion programmes work?

In language immersion programmes, the usual curriculum activities are conducted in a second language, and language, learning is combined with learning the regular elementary school curriculum. The focus of instruction is on the curriculum, while the other language is used as a tool to teach some parts of the curriculum. Instruction is care-fully designed to integrate language and content, to address language learner needs and to encourage the transfer of skills, strategies and know ledge across languages.

These programmes also avoid the use of translation and advocate the policy of separating languages. This means that teachers and students will stay in one language rather than mixing English and German during a given period of instruction. Studies in second language learning indicate that a clear separation of languages for instruction helps to promote communication skills, build the students’ need to use the language and support metalinguistic transfer.

How can parents help?

Tell your children what to expect in the bilingual programme. Help them to understand that going to school means learning another language along with all the other interesting skills they will gain like reading, writing or mathematics. Assure your children that they will not understand every word their teacher is saying, but that they will always know what the teacher wants them to do. Let them know that over time they will understand and will begin to use the language themselves. Encourage your child by telling them how proud you are that they are learning a second language.

After the first few days, it is important not to expect your child to start speaking the second language, and not to try to force your child to speak. Your child will start to use it when they are ready.

Encourage but do not demand that your child speaks the immersion language at home. Do not ask your child to perform in the sec¬ond language. Children intuitively understand that language is the means through which they communicate with real people in real-life situations. Immersion students often will not ‘perform’ on cue when asked by parents or family members to ‘say something’ in the second language. Many parents of immersion students are often worried that their children never use their second language at home or when prompted – only to be amazed later upon hearing their children speak it with a native speaker in the community.

Do not ask your child to translate. This requires high-level skills that are not a part of the programme.

When your child gets home from school, it is important to understand that they may not feel like talking about their day at school. Sometimes children take the routines of school for granted and may want to talk about different topics once they get home.

Do not be tempted to compare your child’s progress to that of children in non-bilingual schools. Your child is learning in two languages and will have the cognitive and academic benefits of bilingualism, while children in non-bilingual schools will not have those benefits. Teach your child the songs and nursery rhymes that are part of their own cultural heritage.

Take advantage of any opportunities to expose your child to language and cultural events in the second language outside of the school setting.

Let your child know that you are pleased with their progress. Your positive attitude is very important to them. Immersion students observe their parents’ responses to the programme and eventually adjust their attitudes according to the attitudes of their parents. Students who receive regular encouragement and assurance from their parents that learning a second language in an immersion setting is the right choice for their family usually have no problems adjusting to the programme.

Will two languages confuse my child or slow down their academic progress?

There is no research to indicate that this is the case. Research has consistently demonstrated that learning in two languages enhances academic growth and develops the cognitive abilities of students. Immersion students not only become bilingual but also master the subject content of the regular school curriculum that is taught through the second language. In addition, they develop functional proficiency in the immersion language which surpasses that of students in all other forms of foreign language instruction.

What about the first days in an immersion programme? Is it frustrating for a child to begin school where no one is speaking their language for half the day?

The children are made to feel safe and secure through expert nurturing instruction. After a few days, they do not focus on the fact that the teacher is speaking in another language. The immersion process emphasises a visual, concrete and hands-on approach. As receptive skills increase, students gradually substitute the second language into their normal speech.

How can I support my children at home if I am not a strong speaker of the immersion language?

The single most important activities families of immersion students can do to aid in their children’s education is to read aloud to their children in their native language at home. It is important to read stories to your child in your native language because those stories may not be heard at school. Stories will help to build up the child’s concepts that will then apply to any language the child is using. In addition to reading to children, it is also important to expose them to the native language in a variety of social and public settings.

Parents can support students at home by making sure that they have the right environment and tools to do their homework. They can al¬so ask questions about their homework in the language spoken at home, thus giving the students opportunities to explain the assignment in their first language.

How can I help important family members such as grandparents, older siblings, extended family or close friends understand our decision to choose the bilingual immersion programme for our child or children?

It is important for them to understand that immersion is a more effective way to learn additional languages and that it does not under-value the importance of being educated in the native language. Inform them about extensive immersion research that points out the many benefits of such types of bilingual education. As your children progress in the programme, you can occasionally ask them to read to concerned grandparents or other adults in both languages to stop them from worrying

In which language should I teach reading at home?

Your child will transfer reading skills from one language to another. Parents should not attempt to formally teach their children to read the other language. If a child is ready to read in the other language on their own, encourage this at home and deal with it in a relaxed and enjoyable manner.

Will my child be able to read in two languages?

Reading skills such as learning to scan sentences from left to right, looking for phonemic or semantic clues, finding parts within words or figuring out meaning from context are all ‘transferable’ between many languages. If students learn a skill in one language, they can transfer it to another language and, in the end, are able to attain grade- level reading competency in two languages rather than just one.

Parents can rest assured that immersion programmes are the fastest growing and most effective type of foreign language programme available in schools today. Immersion students can be expected to reach higher levels of second language proficiency than students in other school-based language programmes. From the standpoint of academic achievement, over five decades of studies consistently show that immersion students achieve as well as or better than non-immersion peers on standardised measurers of verbal and mathematics skills administered in the native language. Becoming bilingual opens the door to communication with more people in more places, increasing economic opportunities. Phorms immersion programmes give students powerful cognitive, social and economic benefits since they provide children with skills to become global citizens and to interact competently in an increasingly interdependent world community.



Get to know our german-english nurseries, primary and secondary schools in Berlin (Mitte or Steglitz-Zehlendorf), Frankfurt (City and Taunus), Hamburg, Munich or the Josef-Schwarz-Schule in Baden-Württemberg.


Helena Curtain is an internationally known author and consultant in the field of language education including immersion and bilingual programs. She is the co-author of Languages and Learners: Making the Match, now in its fifth edition and used by universities throughout the United States for training language teachers. Previously she was the ESL and Foreign Language Specialist for the Milwaukee Public School in charge of languages in 20 high schools, 20 middle schools and 103 elementary schools. Helena Curtain has broad experience working with schools and school districts, teaching and conducting workshops throughout the United States and in 33 other countries. She has also won several national awards for her leadership in language education.

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