Sunday, 17 March 2013

English Skills in Bilingual Children Overseas

English only, please.

"Ni keyi shuo Zhongguo hua gen wo? Hao bu hao?" I asked my son as we were walking home from school the other day.
"No, Mum. I don't want to speak Chinese with you!"

Lacking a language exchange partner, I thought I'd take advantage of my son's far superior Chinese skills to improve my own, and so asked him this favour as we walked home from school the other day. But he was reluctant to oblige. No doubt there are many reasons, including a need to be able to communicate clearly with the people closest to him. While it's disappointing for me not to have a handy Chinese-speaker to help me practise, it's probably for the best. Home is now one of the few places my son has the opportunity speak English.

Children continue to acquire language throughout childhood, expanding their vocabulary range and developing the ability to use more complex and sophisticated structures and forms of expression. Speaking their first language with parents means children are unlikely to lose functional skills, but home environments are limited. To maintain and develop their children's English as if they were still living in an English-speaking country, parents need to be proactive in providing them with opportunities.

Some strategies we've employed in attempting to continue our son's English development include:

Reading aloud

Bedtime stories are a must. As well as being part of a calming bedtime ritual, they're an ideal time at the end of the day for parents and children to share distraction-free enjoyment of reading. Younger children often have a favourite story or set of stories they want to hear over and over again. This phenomenon is so common I believe there's probably a reason for it to do with cognitive development. Indulging the child's preference for as long as parents can stand it is probably the best course of action, though I confess to having 'lost' a certain Disney version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs many years ago.

Children love the one-to-one attention at bedtime and associate that feeling of pleasure with reading. I tend to choose books at a level of English slightly higher than the child's apparent ability. The most recent stories in our home have been Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird. I found through many years of teaching English that understanding is usually at a higher level than production. Children learn new words through context and areas of confusion are good opportunities for parents and children to talk.

Many children love to read to their parents instead of listening to a story and of course this is fine. While it might be tempting to correct children's pronunciation or other mistakes in their reading, it's important not to be too overt about this. Children who feel that bedtime has turned into a lesson are soon put off reading aloud. Who wants to open themselves up to criticism? I've found the least obtrusive way of addressing errors is to repeat the word correctly couched in a comment. Perhaps the child will pick up on their error straightaway and perhaps not. Correction of small errors isn't the point of bedtime stories.

Reading aloud needn't be confined to bedtimes, of course. Nor does the material have to be stories. Poems, song lyrics, letters from home, non-fiction books or other texts might be more to the individual child's taste.


Making good use of the local library is a no-brainer when it comes to maintaining your child's English while living abroad. We're very lucky that in Taipei the central library in Da'an has a whole floor devoted to literature in English. One advantage the library has over those back home is that English literature from around the world is represented. American, Canadian and Australian children's books stock the shelves, as well as all the British favourites we're used to.

As well as weekly visits, we often spend time there just sitting and reading stories.


Before the invention of e-readers, buying English books while living abroad used to be either difficult or expensive, or both. Nowadays, access to most of the newest publications is the same wherever you live.

Kindles are probably the most popular e-readers and there are few comparable contenders for ease of access to new books. But many other e-readers are available and Amazon isn't the only place that stocks books to download. For out-of-copyright literature, Project Gutenberg is the most well-known alternative site, where all books are free. E-readers cost much more than a new book, but once you have one, you need never pay for a book again.

Playing games

Day-to-day language spoken at home tends to be confined to a limited set of vocabulary and structures. Exposure to variety in language is key to building good, rather than just functional, skills.

One way to expand exposure is to play games as a family. The games don't have to be particularly language-oriented ones, such as Scrabble, to require lots of English use in playing them. In our home we play Monopoly, Cluedo, Settlers of Catan, Life, chess, cards and other games. As well as the language use related to the games, wider-ranging discussions (and some arguments) naturally occur.


In its transforming march around the globe, the internet is making it much easier to learn English without living in an English-speaking country. BBC Bitesize has been a personal favourite in maintaining and improving English skills in our family. As well as providing entertaining and interactive English lessons, the site also covers maths and science in English.

It's also possible, though not strictly honest, to pretend to be a teacher and sign up for the Times Educational Supplement's teaching resources site. Primary and secondary school teachers share their resources here, and many of them can be adapted for one-to-one teaching. It costs nothing to join and I'm fairly confident none of the contributors would object to parents using the site.

Skyping and emailing friends and relatives is another way for children to practise their English in a familiar and friendly context.

Enterprising children might like to set up their own blog. Extremely easy to do, and free, this is a great way for children to express themselves and practise their English writing. My son set up this blog a while ago and still posts from time to time. A wonderful advantage of this is that children's efforts are preserved for future years. Unless for some reason the blog gets taken down, your child will be able to look back on their childhood experiences and perspectives during their years abroad. It's important to set the blog's comments to be moderated before publishing to prevent spamming or other unwanted responses appearing.

English-Speaking Communities

Children immersed in the local culture and attending a local school have reduced opportunities to meet and socialise with other English-speaking children. Playing using English is quite different from having a conversation with an adult, and speaking with other children is a normal part of language development. English-speaking playmates for your child are probably beneficial if you can find them.

We're lucky that here in Taipei there's a large, supportive and welcoming community of families with at least one English-speaking parent, holding regular get-togethers and social events. Children get to meet and play with others who have the same first language.

Two of our local community's enterprises that we've drawn enormous benefit from are The Awesome Playgroup Newsletter and Parents' Place. Now in its third year, the newsletter is very motivating for all the children. Seeing their words in print and being intimately involved in a print publication spurs them to contribute fully to each issue, and as they grow older, the children are taking over more aspects of the newsletter production.

My son also attends a class for English-speaking elementary school children at Parent's Place, where he maintains his English skills in a more formal setting. As in all good English classes, the children study cultural aspects of the language too. With St. Patrick's Day impending, their most recent lesson investigated leprechauns, for example.

Cultural English is something difficult to provide for your child while living abroad. Parents aren't well-suited to playing the schoolyard games of their youth, and historical or mythological knowledge isn't evident or easy to reproduce. We tend to take such things for granted. While it's wonderful for children to experience living in another culture, it's also important for them to learn about their own cultural roots.

Maintaining and building on my son's English skills while living here in Taiwan wasn't a problem I anticipated. While it's turned out to be more of an issue than I thought it would be, luckily we've been able to provide lots of opportunities and support for him.

No comments: