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[FIGT2021 REPORT] Hidden Struggles of Multilingual Students

03 May 2021 6:56 AM | Anonymous

As parents and as educators, we often overlook the struggles of multilingual children as they learn and study in various languages. Educator, ATCK and 2019 Pollock Scholar Saeko Mizuta debunks some myths and gives great advice in a punch-packed FIGT2021 poster presentation.

Blog title and images of blocks spelling out multilingual and student

Reporting by Ema Naito-Bhakdi

“It should be easy to maintain a mother tongue because that's what you speak at home, right?”

Educator, ATCK and 2019 Pollock Scholar Saeko Mizuta asks us in her FIGT2021 poster presentation on “Hidden Struggles of Multilingual Students: Helping Them Thrive Academically.”

Actually, she tells us, that’s a myth. “Developing biliteracy is like the child having two demanding full-time jobs,” she says. To support biliteracy, families often have to prioritize and make tough decisions.

As parents or educators of children growing up or moving between two (or more) languages, many of us fall into the trap of thinking that children only need to get over some initial bumps before they adapt.

But Saeko reminds us otherwise. Her poster session on the myths and realities of TCKs who switch between different languages and educational systems hits us with sharp observations Saeko gathered through her work tutoring over 1,000 Japanese TCKs.

“As parents and educators, we tend to believe children can learn English in a couple of years.” 

Nope: myth, says Saeko. “We need to remember that it takes at least five years for learners to develop cognitive academic language proficiency — the kind of English we need to be learning and thinking in English.”

As a TCK, I don’t remember suffering over learning English, probably because I was lucky enough to learn it when I was four years old and then kept it up through a lot of reading. But as a parent of multilingual cross-cultural kids, I remind myself to take note of this point.

“As parents and educators, we tend to believe that children can ask for help if they need it.”

“But sometimes they're so confused that they don't know what help to ask for.” 

Now that one hit home. Although language itself wasn’t an issue for me during my teenage years in the US, I suffered trying to navigate the bewildering social rules and customs of American teenagers. But it never even occurred to me that I might ask for help from someone. I had no clue what to ask for and from whom.

Hence,  Saeko’s advice to parents and educators: “Ask and offer specific things. Listen, involve parents in simple English if you can.”

“As parents and educators, we tend to believe English language learners should not struggle with math because math does not require English.”

Right? But then Saeko shares the words of one of her students: “The math part is easy, but I can't get there.” 

This reminded me of the TCKs of Asia panel session on Day 1, where bilingual ATCK Aiko Minematsu talked about how she didn’t participate in physical education class because she simply didn’t understand that it was PE class.

And finally: 

“As parents and educators, we believe language is a skill. Well, we know that language defines your identity.”

This alone is a topic of times so I will leave it here but refer you to the TCKs of Asia panel discussion at FIGT2021 and also another forum the group held in October 2020, “A Foreigner in My Own Family: The Hidden Loss of Language & Intimacy” (available as a podcast).

We all know the pros of growing up among different countries and cultures and speaking multiple languages — the expanded worldview, the adaptability, the ability to get along and survive anywhere.

Thanks to David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, we also know and can talk about the hidden griefs of TCKs.

And that’s what Saeko’s three minutes captured, that’s what touched me deep in my TCK heart: language is part of the hidden griefs and challenges of TCKs. 

p.s. I’ve skipped one or two more myths; if you have access to the FIGT2021 platform, I highly recommend you go watch the poster sessions!

p.p.s. More from Saeko: TEDxFulbrightTokyo talk “The traumatizing gift: A global childhood” (February 2018)

Adult TCK Ema has found her volunteering “home” on the FIGT Comms team as blog editor. Based in Bangkok, she is an independent scholarly editor who enjoys classical singing and blogging about raising three cross-cultural, multilingual kids.

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