The extremes are the most striking in relation to multilingual children. Some of these children excel in several languages and possibly in other areas too, while others do not do very well in any of their languages. With regard to the former, it is easy for parents to fall into the trap of considering their child to be a prodigy, while the latter is held up as a deterrent by those who oppose multilingual education.
Yet both these situations have the same root: the child’s skills. To explain this, let me tell you about two cases:
During one webinar, a mother who spoke Hungarian and English at home, but whose child studied in Czech at school, raised the problem of what to do if her child needed help with their schoolwork? Since she didn’t speak Czech well, she had to rely on the teachers’ opinions. She found this lack of first-hand knowledge difficult because it deprived her of the possibility to help her child properly and to understand whether the child might need further support.
For example, one of the most tricky areas for her was reading. When she had to read with her child at home, she wasn’t able to check whether the words had been read correctly or not. And if the child didn’t understand something, she wasn’t able to help easily.
She said that she planned for her son to first learn to read and write well in Czech, and that she was planning to leave the introduction of reading and writing in Hungarian, her mother tongue, until later.
In the same group, another mother’s daughter of a similar age had difficulties with reading at school. The mother had gone to a parents’ meeting just before the first webinar session, where the teacher had suggested to her that it would be useful if they read more at home, because her little daughter needed more practice.
For multilinguals, it is very useful to take into account the transversality of competences, that is, if a child learns something in any of their languages, such as reading, they do not have to start from the beginning in their other languages, but can already build on a lot of things that they had already mastered when they learnt to read in their first language. How much these can be used also depends on the writing systems; it is easier for languages that use the Roman alphabet. To expand on this, this transferral of skills is also based on similar strategic knowledge, if the languages use alphabets at all. The greater the difference between a child’s languages, the more important it is that they learn all the relevant writing systems in childhood.
In fact, they can start learning skills in any language and this will help their other languages as well, meaning that whatever they learn in any language becomes applicable when using the other languages.
Going back to our previous example, the mother living in the Czech Republic, inspired by the webinar, started teaching her son to read in her own mother tongue earlier than she had planned. And a week later, she was already happy to report that she had witnessed how her little son had spelled out the first words of a book of poems in her mother tongue.
In the second example, the mother spoke the language of the new country very well, but she didn’t want her daughter to read in both languages at the same time, because she wanted to support her daughter by helping her use the language she needed at school. However, as a result of the webinar, she decided to practise reading in her mother tongue as well. This was a very positive joint experience, and needless to say, the little daughter’s mid-term grades improved.
The transferability of competences between languages is true not only for the competence of reading, but also, for example, for mathematics. I suggested to a Hungarian family that was about to move home that they pay for some online private mathematics lessons for their sons, since the curriculum in each country is slightly different and for high-school-age children, it is useful to have a little help with the transition. After a few weeks of “tutoring” based on the Hungarian curriculum, the parents reported that the child’s math score had also improved at the local school in Catalonia, where they approached the same subject in a different language and in a slightly different way.
Here, too, the strengthening of a competence had a positive effect on the child’s mathematical performance in both classes (in different school systems, using different languages).
So, the existence or lack of competences causes extreme situations, among other things. The good news, however, is that even if the competences are weak in all languages, we can help the language development of multilinguals using any language we like. As we have seen, this will lead to positive changes in all other languages as well. In other words, we should not relegate one language or another to the background, even temporarily, for fear that it may negatively affect the child’s language development.
Why did I use a photo of a skier with this post? Because these thoughts were inspired by Eileen Gu, the bilingual skiing champion.