Supporting bilingual children's socio-emotional wellbeing in the home and school context

Interview with Dr. He Sun, National Institute of Education, Singapore

By Theresa Bloder, 11th October 2022

Some of the terms in this interview are quite technical. You can find a brief explanation of starred terms in the margin.

Dr. Sun, in one of your recent studies that was published in 2021 (Bilingual language experience and social-emotional well-being: A cross-sectional study of Singapore pre-schoolers) you and your colleagues found that a "good language environment for bilingual children" not only supports early language development but that it can also impact children's socio-emotional well-being. According to you, what constitutes a "good language environment"?

The term language environment refers to children's quantity and quality of language exposure as well as their language usage. With respect to language exposure, my co-authors and I emphasize the impact of language input. That relates to how much parents and other family members use each language when they speak to their children. When we speak of children's language usage or output, we look at how much speech bilingual children produce in each of their languages. In a "good" language environment, bilingual children receive sufficient opportunities to hear and use both of their languages. However, mere quantity of language experience is not sufficient. Over the years, we found that bilingual literacy input and practice can simultaneously make a valuable contribution to children's dual language development and socio-emotional learning.

What impact do bilingual literacy practices have on the development of children's socio-emotional skills?

Biliteracy experience, and shared book reading in both languages in particular, is very important when it comes to children's socio-emotional development. Shared book reading is an important form of interaction between parents and their children. That's because it invites them to engage in further conversations about the contents of the book. One way to do that is to find relations between the contents of a book and children's personal experiences. Also, shared book reading encourages *turn-taking*. A well-known earlier study found that children's story books provide a lot of socio-emotional content for parents and children to discuss (1). Parents can make use of these socio-emotional cues and speak about social events or emotions that reflect their child's current real-life experiences. A lot of terminology related to socio-emotional competence will arise during these shared book reading interactions. This will encourage children to talk about their emotions in both of their languages and further make them aware of their own and other people's feelings. Additionally, shared book reading practices in more than one language can offer insight into different cultures and convey different social norms. This will help children develop their own cultural identity.

Once children reach a certain age, people such as teachers, who are not directly linked to children's immediate family context, gain a crucial role in children's everyday language experience. In this context the term "translanguaging" as an approach to language pedagogy has become very popular. Can you explain what it is and what it entails and how it contributes to Harmonious Bilingualism?

Yes, in the school setting the concept of what we have previously defined as a "good" language environment also extends to teachers and peers and how much each of a child's languages is used in the school context.

I would like to quote García and Kano (2014) who defined the term translanguaging as "a process by which students and teachers engage in complex discursive practices that include all the language practices of all students in a class in order to develop new language practices and sustain old ones, communicate and appropriate knowledge, and give voice to new sociopolitical realities by interrogating linguistic inequality" (2). More broadly speaking, teachers should make use of their students' full repertoire of languages and other types of semiotics to deliver meaning and make students understand the meaning. But let me give you a concrete example for teachers to put translanguaging to the practice. For instance, if a Geography teacher wants to teach their students about climate change, they can invite each student to first check information online (e.g., in videos, text, pictures) by relying on their individual heritage language. Next, they might want to invite their students to discuss the topic in class by using the shared societal language. Students could then further be encouraged to briefly summarize and write down the new information in their heritage language in order to then – again in groups – get together and compose a final text in the societal language. This final text will help the teacher in evaluating whether or not the students were able to grasp the topic and contents.

The approach of translanguaging not only helps children make progress in the societal language, it also fosters and appreciates their heritage language(s). This is especially valuable considering that children's different languages very often have different functions in their lives. Remember that some immigrant parents do not feel confident using the societal language with their children. The proficient use of the heritage language is, on the one hand, important for children in order to establish intimacy and to continuously bond with their parents. On the other hand, the societal language is most relevant in the out-of-home context, where children need to communicate with their peers and teachers and rely on a good command of that language in order to be successful in school.

What else can teachers do to contribute to and support Harmonious Bilingualism outcomes and bilingual children's socio-emotional wellbeing?

Ideally, the teachers themselves have a bilingual background or some basic command of more than one language (preferably the most common heritage languages within their region). If teachers can speak their students' heritage language(s) this may help decrease teacher-student conflicts in the classroom. Also, hearing their teacher *codeswitch* between two or more languages can boost children's motivation to learn both their languages well.

Students are usually highly sensitive towards their teachers' opinions and attitudes. Even if the teachers themselves are not bilingual, they can still lead by example and show that they support linguistic diversity. Also, they should make it clear that they equally value and appreciate all of their students' home languages and by doing so embed the seed of linguistic equality in their students' minds. This will encourage children to take pride in their heritage language and subsequently use it more often, especially in the school context. Overall, this will boost children's self-confidence and self-esteem and foster their cultural identity.

Thank you, Dr. Sun, for this interesting and insightful interview!

(1) Dyer, J. R., Shatz, M., & Wellman, H. M. (2000). Young children's storybooks as a source of mental state information. Cognitive Development, 15. 17-37.
(2) See p. 261 in García, O., & Kano, N. (2014). Translanguaging as process and pedagogy: Developing the English writing of Japanese students in the U.S. In Conteh, J. & Meier, G. (eds.), The multilingual turn in languages education: Benefits for individuals and societies (pp. 258–277). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Dr. He Sun is an Education Research Scientist at the Center for Research in Child Development (CRCD) of the National Institute of Education in Singapore and a Supporting Member of HaBilNet. Her research interests lie in bilingual education for English and Heritage Languages and socio-emotional wellbeing in bilingual children. HaBilNet is grateful to Dr. Sun for her generous cooperation. The interview was conducted on August 15th, 2022 via Zoom.
Turn-taking refers to the process of the back and forth exchange of the role of being the active speaker and the passive listener between two people who engage in a conversation.
The term code-switching has been used to describe the fact that speakers alternate between two or more languages in the context of a single conversation or situation.

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