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'A superpower': How being bilingual can help kids thrive in Danish schools

Michael Barrett
Michael Barrett - [email protected]
'A superpower': How being bilingual can help kids thrive in Danish schools
Providing an encouraging environment can help bilingual kids to thrive. Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

Being bilingual can help children to prosper academically when they are encouraged at school and at home, an expert told The Local.

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A recent report in Denmark linked a lack of Danish spoken at home and lower economic status with poorer performance at school, but bilingualism in isolation is an advantage under the right conditions, a specialist in the area told The Local on Friday.

Around 40 percent of school students with immigrant backgrounds were considered to be underperforming in mathematics, reading and science. That compares to 16 percent of students with non-immigrant backgrounds, according to the report “PISA Etnisk 2022”, published this week by research and analysis institute VIVE (National Research and Analysis Center for Welfare).

For all students, regardless of heritage, socioeconomic status was a factor in school performance. In other words, students from strong socioeconomic positions achieve better PISA results on average than those from weaker socioeconomic positions.

The report states that the language spoken at home may also have an effect on school results, with students who speak some Danish at home more likely to achieve better results – although this effect is reduced when socioeconomic status is taken into account.

READ ALSO: Kids who don't speak Danish at home 'may find school harder'

However, the report may not identify the difference individual situations can make for parents, an expert in raising bilingual children told The Local.

Bilingual kids given the right encouragement and support at home and school are in fact likely to thrive, said Elisa Sievers, a cultural consultant and founder of Happy Children Denmark. 

Sievers, who noted she had not read the VIVE report specifically, has observed bilingual schools and studied evidence on teaching multilingual children, at the Institute for Minority Education at University College South Denmark. 

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Larger studies don’t always look at “the kids’ class or socioeconomics, where they actually come from, how long they’ve been in Denmark or what kind of resources the family has,” she said, adding that a number of different factors, like the languages spoken and whether the parents speak Danish, can create different circumstances contributing to results.

Being bilingual “doesn't take the academic level of a child down, quite the opposite,” Sievers said. “It's really about creating a space where children feel seen and feel that all parts of their identity and their language skills are embraced, then the child’s full potential can get out and they can thrive and have better academic results."

“If a child is not thriving then they won’t perform super well academically either.”

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Difficulties can arise if bilingualism is framed negatively by educators, parents or others, such as “questioning whether [the child] speaks any language perfectly,” Sievers said.

“That will affect the way the child is behaving and the way the child wants to perform and experiment with learning languages in general."

“If there's a positive, embracing space where the child can develop and use their language skills in a positive way”, they will be able to thrive, she said.

To create an “embracing” environment for bilingual children, Sievers advocates parents “staying authentic”, meaning each parent being consistent about speaking in their own mother tongue.

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“It's important that while the children are small and learning to speak that parents stick to that, and then they can be more loose later when the child knows the two languages,” she said.

At school, teachers can “make a point of the child having a special skill” by encouraging use of the second language.

An example of this could be asking the child to explain something about their language or background to the rest of the class.

“Seeing the language background, talk about it as something positive and something that is a superpower for the child instead of being a problem,” she said.

Elisa Sievers has a monthly newsletter, with tips for teachers and parents of bilingual and trilingual children.

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