Native Language @ ISB

Entries Tagged as 'Multilingualism'

Being a Second Language Learner

May 7th, 2019 · No Comments

How do multilingual students feel when struggling with a language? Embarrassed, shy, and sometimes “awful,” according to Yeonie, a grade 11 student who presented at TEDxYouth@ISBangkok 2019.

Drawing on her experience as a Korean speaker learning English at ISB for three years, Yeonie powerfully described going quiet and even changing her personality when switching from Korean to English. She offered seasoned advice to both language learners and their peers.

To language learners, she urged learning from mistakes and letting yourself “be a kid, be a child.” 

To native speakers of a language that others are learning, she urged respect, encouragement, and patience. “Wait for us.”

Yeonie, 잘 했습니다.

Tags: Multilingualism · Native Language at ISB


March 27th, 2019 · 1 Comment


March 27, 2019, is the first International Day of Multilingualism. Founded by a network of language professionals, including Dr. Thomas H. Bak of the University of Edinburgh—clinical research fellow in the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences and Co-Director of Bilingualism Matters, long linked in this blog’s Bookmarks—the day celebrates “the multi-layered, multi-lingual way that humans actually use languages in our everyday lives.” The date commemorates the date on the Rosetta Stone, which corresponds to March 27, 196 BC.

The official website states, 

Everyone is a linguist. People talk. It’s just what humans do. As a species we have evolved over thousands of years and adapted to speaking more than one language very easily. 

But somehow the dialogue has changed over the last couple of centuries and speaking more than one language is commonly perceived as irregular, or special, when in fact more than two thirds of the world’s population speak two or more languages in their daily life. We’re not talking about the incredible polyglots who speak ten or more languages. Just the day-to-day use of language that is as much as part of our normal day as, say, enjoying a cup of coffee.

Ways to take part are listed here and include a hashtag: #multilingualisnormal

The hashtag was shared with ISB HS students in their email bulletin today. 

Happy International Day of Multilingualism!

Tags: Multilingualism

Ask Olga! The Art (and Fun) of Translation

June 10th, 2018 · 1 Comment

As the 2017-2018 school year comes to an end, we wish you a happy holiday! Olga Steklova sends you off with a column on translation games.

Our young granddaughter Michelle, like most multilingual children, has a natural ability to switch languages and perform simultaneous translation. We were building a sand castle on the beach once for a ‘man-eating monster’—a character from a fairy tale that I was telling Michelle in Russian. As her French-speaking dad emerged from the sea I was mentally getting ready to describe our sand ‘structure’ to him and trying to come up with an English or French equivalent for the character…but Michelle never even hesitated, and explained to her dad in French that it was a castle for an ‘ogre’.

I see this skill as the first step in the art of translation. Of course, one doesn’t have to be multilingual as a child to become an expert translator. However, a multilingual child has a natural ability—and often a need—to build bridges from one language to another.

At the early stage of development when children mostly operate using concrete categories, it is relatively easy to name objects or talk about everyday activities while switching from one language to another. As we read a story in Russian, I might ask Michelle to ‘translate’ it for her dad into French. Sometimes I might ask her to choose one of her French bedtime stories—from her extensive library in three languages—and retell it to me in Russian. This requires a combined effort, of course; she needs to want to share the stories, and I need to show genuine interest in them.

We sometimes play a version of the telephone game, in which I whisper a word, a phrase or an instruction to her in Russian, and she must deliver it to someone else’s ear in French (or English, depending on the participants of the game).

Such simple and fun activities give children practice in the skill of finding the best substitutes for words and ideas in other languages, making sure the meaning is not ‘lost in translation’.

When learning a language, big strides are usually made at the beginning. These initial achievements eventually level off as learners reach their ‘comfort zone’, the level that allows them to function minimally, enough to fulfil basic needs. Families can be quite content for their children to reach academic heights in one language, usually the language of education, and to become ‘minimally functional’ in others.

However, many parents of multilingual children nowadays, who know the benefits of being multilingual, choose to motivate and support their children to move beyond the basic levels of linguistic proficiency. They know that a high level of mastery in several languages opens a whole new world of options.

There are many ways parents and extended families can help children to maintain home, or heritage, languages at a high level—and translation games should definitely be on that list. Michelle is still at the early stage of development,  but this is a good time to start looking ahead, making enrichment plans for times not too far away…

The stage in which she will begin to operate sophisticated abstract concepts and ideas is just around the corner. Language used to express these concepts involves ambiguity and shades of meaning based on personal, cultural, emotional and educational experiences. As a multilingual she then has potential to blend such experiences into broader and deeper conceptual understandings. Translation practice, I believe, will help her to refine and deepen linguistic expertise, broaden general knowledge and cultural flexibility, and harbor appreciation of languages.

So, envisioning this ‘time not so far away’—but also getting ready for the long summer vacation—I have compiled a list of translation activities. Here it is, so far:

  • retell stories in different languages to family members, classmates and friends;
  • have regular creative sessions or conversations to find equivalents for concepts studied at school;
  • take passages from school books and translate them into one or more home languages;
  • have fun looking at expert translations of favorite books;
  • have a go at translating passages from favorite books and poems;
  • have fun working with dictionaries;
  • write journal entries, letters, stories, and plays, and translate them for family members who speak various languages;
  • find reasons and provide motivation for all the above. Be a model and enjoy translation together!

Our granddaughter Michelle loves songs and sings them in English, French and Russian. Intuitively, finding herself in a different cultural setting, she sometimes simultaneously translates a familiar song and sings it to the same tune but in another language. We can’t wait to see her this summer and have fun creating new songs, storytelling, building bridges between languages, and getting her ready for school, life and more linguistic adventures!

Tags: Ask Olga! · Mother tongue at home · Multilingualism

“The Need Factor is Crucial” for Learning Language

February 9th, 2018 · No Comments


François Grosjean is an emeritus professor of linguistics at Neuchâtel University, Switzerland, whose blog Life as a Bilingual appears in the Bookmarks on the right side of this blog. Grosjean has been quoted as saying “the need factor is crucial” for young multilinguals: They must experience regular situations in which only one of their languages will do. If not, Grosjean says, “children are very good at judging whether it is worth maintaining a language or letting it wither away.”

Our recent post by columnist Olga Steklova also mentions the need for diverse experiences, “language use for a wide variety of meaningful purposes.”

Besides language class, where can your child regularly “need” a language? 

Full post quoting Grosjean at The Economist Prospero blog: Bringing Up Baby Bilingual: Strategies for Getting Youngsters Fluent in More than One Language

Tags: Family Language Plan · Mother tongue at home · Multilingualism · Websites

Ask Olga! More on “Linguistic Balance”

January 29th, 2018 · 1 Comment


The holidays are over—we enjoyed them tremendously! Our grandchildren, while they were acquiring swimming skills here in Thailand, were also immersed in a rich “linguistic pool”.

“Tell me a story, Baba!” And I’d begin—in Russian. Breaks and pauses were not appreciated. “And then, Baba, and then?” At the age of 4, Michelle has an insatiable thirst for stories. We’d practice telling stories together. She would coerce me into taking the leading roles. Probably the same routine, with variations, happens in her other family language, French. She is also keen on talking about “mathematics”—perhaps her educational setting in her English preschool inspired her love for numbers. She easily transfers number concepts into Russian and French contexts. We are astonished by her linguistic gains and amused by her creativity and ability to switch effortlessly between languages, skilfully adjusting her talk to match the speaker’s “linguistic personality”.

Perhaps while memories are fresh, it is time to revisit some of our beliefs and assumptions and start setting goals and making new plans. Should we assume that our grandchild, through our family’s efforts, has become “balanced” in her linguistic ability? Or is it too early to draw conclusions, since language proficiency changes over time? The phrases “balanced bilinguals” and “language dominance” are often used when talking about bilingual and multilingual development. And yet, how can we define “balance”? Does this mean perfect or equal proficiency in each language, and how do we measure it? Especially taking into account the child’s ever-changing personal, social and educational landscape.


So many factors beyond our control throughout children’s lives will affect their need, and their ability, to use languages. Can we ever expect them to be perfect? Even if balance, or lack of it, between two languages might be possible to imagine and describe—my mind sees bicycles with two perfectly functional (or broken) wheels; or two floating icebergs with all parts intact (or some missing); or two fully (or partially) inflated balloons inside a person’s head—wait, what about the “balance” of three languages? The metaphors start to break up. Perhaps linguistic balance is not only an unattainable goal, but also an unhelpful way to look at linguistic ability in children who are growing up with several languages.

Rather than aiming at “linguistic balance”—which is hard to define and assess—we could aim at developing and strengthening children’s ability to function with confidence in linguistically and culturally diverse and changing settings. If we think about language in terms of its functions, or domains of use, we can then support children by expanding their experiences and providing contexts of language use for a wide variety of meaningful purposes. Those purposes might differ across languages, contexts and over time. To this end we set goals and make plans. Here it might be worthwhile to focus not just on goals and plans, but also on our visions. Whereas goals are specific and attainable, visions are broad, all-encompassing ideas. Goals of course are necessary, but visions provide purpose and significance for the whole endeavor of becoming functionally proficient language users.

Here is a link to a blog post, written by multilingual linguist Madalena Cruz-Ferreira: Dominant Languages and Balanced Languages

Columnist Olga Steklova is a retired EAL teacher at ISB and trilingual herself. She shares tips for raising multilingual children as she observes her own grandchildren. Here is a column that she wrote previously about linguistic balance, when the 4-year-old granddaughter described above was 2-1/2: How Important is Linguistic Balance?

Tags: Ask Olga! · Multilingualism · Websites

ISB Many Languages, One Voice—A Student Film

November 13th, 2017 · No Comments

Here is the student film shown at ISB’s all-school Together: Many Languages, One Voice assembly on the International Day of Peace, 2017. 

Tags: Multilingualism · Native Language at ISB

A series of short trailers from Patchwork Films

May 15th, 2017 · No Comments

Perspectives on bilingualism / language maintenance

Tags: Bilingualism · Diversity · Mother tongue at home · Multilingualism · Native Language and Education · Native Language Teachers

Questions parents ask about raising multilingual children

May 9th, 2017 · No Comments

back room tasker ave 73

Parent questions

Tags: Bilingualism · Mother tongue at home · Multilingualism

Mother Tongue reading box

May 2nd, 2017 · No Comments

In this Grade 3 classroom at ISB, children have access to books in their mother tongue.

MT reading

Thanks Caryn Macky

Tags: Bilingualism · Diversity · Images · Multilingualism · Native Language at ISB

Supporting mother tongue in the ES classroom

March 21st, 2017 · 2 Comments

It’s good to see teachers doing the quiet, small things that send powerful messages to kids. In this example from Grade 3, the teacher sponsors a child in a read-a-thon to read in both her languages. The learning here is multidimensional.

Mainstream teacher supporting multilingual practices

Tags: Bilingualism · Diversity · Multilingualism · Native Language and Education · Native Language at ISB