n our mobile, global world, it’s common for families
to live abroad, to marry someone from another
nationality and to live in societies where several
languages are spoken. Indeed, Hong Kong’s
dynamic economy has always attracted foreign families.
Whether families are transient, long-term residents, native
Hongkongers, foreigners or mixed nationality couples, most
parents hope that their children will be multilingual. Being
fluent in another language is considered an asset, and most
researchers agree that a child benefits cognitively, creatively,
socially and even emotionally from being bilingual.
Children are normally excellent communicators and
the speed at which they typically pick up a new language
is amazing, especially when immersed in a foreign
community or attending a school where that language
is the medium of instruction. Within a few months, they
acquire the new language and feel comfortable using it for
their needs in social situations. But ambitious parents who
aim for full bilingualism in their kids will need to engage
in thoughtful language planning to support the continued
language learning process.
Set your expectations
There are two broad levels of foreign language proficiency:
BICS and CALP. These acronyms, first introduced by
Canadian linguist Jim Cummins, differentiate between
social and academic language acquisition.
BICS stands for Basic Interpersonal Communication
Skills, which means that after a few months of exposure,
most children are capable of interacting to obtain what
they immediately need, engage in the playground, have a
good time at birthday parties, play sports or take part in
activities. They do not use complex language, but they can
efficiently interact in their new language context. These
language skills are not so demanding cognitively and are
acquired in about six months to two years, depending on
the individual.
Even if we tend to be amazed when our little ones
communicate in the foreign language so efficiently, we need
to be aware that this is only the beginning of a much longer
CALP means Cognitive Academic Language
Proficiency, and is used for formal academic learning. It is
the level of language your child needs to have in order to
follow a school curriculum, to become fully literate or to
use the language in professional environments.
As children grow, learning evolves from a means for
discovering their immediate environment to exploring the
world and its academic areas. Students are required to
listen, speak, read and write about the subjects they study.
It’s not just about understanding the content vocabulary;
it’s about acquiring skills such as being able to compare,
evaluate, synthesise, classify or infer. Using these skills in
a foreign language is more difficult because they are less
context-driven and more demanding cognitively.
Linguistic family planning
Parents can be a little lost when it comes to determining
what depth of language skills their child really needs.
Linguistic family planning, taking your family’s unique
needs into account, will help. Expatriate families planning
to live abroad for a finite period of time before returning
Most parents living in international
communities recognise the value
in having our kids speak multiple
languages. But achieving full fluency
takes planning and effort, writes
Laetitia Chanéac-Knight
Summer 2013