Native Language @ ISB

Entries Tagged as 'Multilingualism'

What Multilingualism Means to Me: Virtual Middle School Edition

April 10th, 2020 · No Comments

Multilingualism can help us understand different cultures…which is sometimes weird. It makes travel easier…when we can travel! Middle schoolers in virtual Native Spanish with Maite Montero-Nahoum recently represented what being multilingual means to them, celebrating the International Day of Multilingualism. 

Here are videos by Gaby and Natalia (their names en español), shared with permission. Students may be stuck at home due to the novel coronavirus, but they’re having fun!

Video 1 (Gaby)

Video 2 (Natalia)

Tags: Multilingualism · Native Language at ISB

Tips on Multilingual Learning at Home

March 27th, 2020 · No Comments

ISB Multilingual Learning at Home, a blog post to accompany the above video.

March 27, 2020, is the second International Day of Multilingualism. On this date—chosen because March 27, 196 BC, is the date on the famously multilingual Rosetta Stone—we celebrate how more than half of the world’s population speaks multiple languages. #MultilingualIsNormal! This is clear at ISB, where English is the common language but a majority of students report a Language Other Than English as their native language, and where native and world language classes are offered in all divisions.

Currently, virtual school affords ISB families a unique opportunity to use ALL of their languages, connecting both with school work and with one another. How can multilingual learning enrich the experience of virtual school? How are ISB families finding that #MultilingualIsNormal even in a not-so-normal time? This is a great day to share stories. Happy International Day of Multilingualism!

Note in today’s Good Morning Middle School, daily email announcements for students in grades 6-8.



Tags: Mother tongue at home · Multilingualism

Ask Olga! Helping Children Store Up Languages

November 8th, 2019 · 3 Comments

Children of multilingual families rarely choose what languages they will learn. They receive and accumulate what is given them by the family and the outside world. However, once children begin to develop their linguistic competencies, they are compelled to make choices each and every time they use language. Just think of the complexity of these choices and the amazing capacity and flexibility of young multilingual minds!

“How did it happen that you speak three languages?” I ask my granddaughter Michelle as we sit on the porch outside her home near London. A seemingly simple question suddenly poses a challenge to a six-year-old. “I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe when my Mama had me in her belly she spoke three languages . . .” It takes her a few seconds to reconsider, and then a more logical (from our perspective) answer emerges: “Oh, I know, I speak Russian with Mama and French with Papa. And my preschool teacher taught me English.”

It seems that for Michelle and her younger brother Maxim, each linguistic choice, each transition from one language to another, happens seamlessly and naturally. Russian is part of Mama’s personality and her family, and French is part of Papa and his family. English has a strong presence everywhere. It is useful to think of these languages not as separate domains but as a combined multilingual resource. Children learn to use this resource through experimenting with it, mixing the language ingredients, and learning the best ways to convey meaning. We are lucky to be involved in this process, but we also bear the responsibility for enriching the language they store.

My grandchildren’s language acquisition has involved some innovative choices, some unexpected side trips, and many funny moments. Both Michelle and Maxim continue to experiment with grammatical intricacies, word choices and phonology based on language that they have received. With the start of their school in the UK, the share of English language during the day has increased. Therefore, it is now especially important that their family continues to provide motivation and support for learning home languages and literacy.

Sometimes parents are concerned that the use of home languages might compromise learning in the language of instruction at school. However, research, experience and common sense suggest that using the potential of all linguistic resources available to multilingual children is beneficial for their cognitive, social and emotional development, and ultimately for their success in the global community.

Members of multilingual families can turn many moments into opportunities to build proficiency in home languages. These opportunities sometimes get lost in the ocean of chores and daily routines, engagement with gadgets, and the “I’ll do it on the weekend” mentality. We must keep in mind that lost opportunities accumulated over time require a lot of catching up later.

How can we parents and grandparents help children “store up” language?

  • Look at the schedule and make a list of language enrichment possibilities within our reach.
  • Use our native languages with the children consistently, making them always a part of the linguistic landscape.
  • Seek out new sources of language input: friends, activities, online sessions and/or lessons—these are becoming quite popular as distance learning. Adult friends, cartoons, movies and books are also great. The world is multilingual—there are opportunities to meet same-language groups everywhere!
  • Make good strategic use of our extended family: relatives and important others who are dedicated to educating children and happy to watch them grow. Michelle has begun serving as my Russian-language narrator for home movies filmed in French. Maxim is beginning to add his voice as well!

Our year has been full of family events—holidays, visiting cousins, and birthday parties. I remember a moment when children welcomed an invited birthday party star in London—a Spiderman. Michelle’s cousin Zoya was showing him her jump rope skills, which Michelle had not yet mastered. I could see Michelle’s intense expression until she seemed to have made a decision. She went closer to Spiderman and said seriously and proudly: “And I can speak three languages!” We hope our children will always feel proud of their linguistic accomplishments! If our children and grandchildren value their ability to speak more than one language, then that’s the best reward for our efforts.

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. To read more columns, click on the Ask Olga! category below.

Tags: Ask Olga! · Mother tongue at home · 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

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