Why learn English (when you already speak it)?

Read our guest post by Sue Aitken of Blackhen Education

To be truly bilingual, a child needs to be able to read, write and speak fluently in both languages. For many, the idea of speaking a second language appeals, but what happens when this second language becomes dominant?

Whilst speaking English at home will obviously keep the mother tongue strong, reading and writing can suffer. With a younger child, these key skills can fail to develop in the first place. In our experience of teaching English in France, many parents have experienced this.

The child’s second language, learnt in the host country, will naturally flourish if they are exposed to it on a daily basis and it is their key to communicating with their peer group and teachers. But the mother tongue can then be by-passed on a daily basis.

Language is a perishable skill. If unused, it quickly declines in one way or another.

Elise, 14
As Hilary McGarth, mother of fourteen year old Elise, puts it: My daughter is lucky to be able to converse easily in two languages and it is reassuring that she'll pass her school English exams effortlessly.
‘But what will she miss out on by attending school in France? In primary school she was taught to conjugate French verbs and know her CODs from her COIs but she didn't write many essays or poems or read much. When she started collège we decided she was capable of following the English curriculum as well as her normal studies. After one year studying English with Blackhen, she has now decided she'd like to become a writer. Whether in English or French I don't know, but we hope she'll be capable of both.’

‘I had always read and talked to my sons in English so they had no problem communicating,’ says Anna Daley, mother of James and Henri, 6, who are also studying English outside school. ‘But I wanted them to be truly bilingual, with written as well as oral skills in English, and I didn't want them to get behind in English, when they were starting to learn to read in French.
‘It is important not to think that a child will grow up perfectly bilingual, just because one parent (or even both) communicates with them in a second language. As they grow older, children are greatly influenced by the time they spend at school and with their friends, and it is almost inevitable that the language this happens in will become dominant.
‘As an English teacher in a secondary school, I have seen quite a few English students in my classes, who wrote onomatopoeically, or who were not very aware of different language registers (when to use formal expressions, for instance). Many also used stock expressions or sayings which they had translated word for word into English from the original French, as they were not aware of those that were available to them in English.’

Language is not the same as culture 

Culture, too, can suffer a similar fate to that of the mother tongue. Growing up in the UK, or for that matter any other country, a person absorbs their culture by osmosis. Be it reading Roald Dahl at school or enjoying beans on toast, some things are particular to that distinct culture. These are key reference points in a person’s cultural development.

Books play a massive part in this development of a cultural identity. Some are inherently British, be it the exploits of the ‘Famous Five’ to the magical mishaps of Harry, Ron and Hermione.
In today’s global world books traverse borders as easily as people. However, whilst The Hunger Games may excite a new generation of readers, and that is to be applauded, it can’t instill a cultural identity in the same way as, say, Goodnight Mr. Tom. Stories rooted in our native culture can help shape a sense of identity in the British child growing up in abroad.

Giving your child choices
By giving your child English lessons, you are widening their opportunities for the future. If your child decides that he/she wishes to study at University/college in the UK at a later date, they will need their English. Many UK colleges/universities will insist that they have IGCSE English.

Sue Greensdale has signed her daughters up for English lessons ‘to keep up English skills with a view to further education in UK and being able to write and spell correctly in English. A pre-requisite in today’s competitive World! The English they learn at school is not stretching them at all and is obviously not taught in the same way as if you are English.’

Anca Thomson, mother of seven year old Theo, agrees: ‘Signing Theo up for English lessons has allowed us to keep up with Theo’s English level within the UK curriculum and provides a reassuring guidance by qualified UK teachers that our son’s English language skills are developing in the right direction’.

For more information about English courses at Blackhen Education, visit  www.blackheneducation.com
or contact us at: blackheneducation@hotmail.co.uk


  1. It's something I never thought of before we moved here - the fact I'd have to teach our youngest child English! The older two were 11 and 14 when we arrived and had very sound English language writing skills. But Ruadhri was only 5. Orally he's perfect and we've taught him to read, but his written English is frankly terrible. His English teacher often asks him how to spell things, and he doesn't know. He incorporates the full set of French accents in his English writing! I'm very interested to learn about Blackhen and will certainly visit your website since I now see that an expat child's native language can be the one that starts to suffer.

  2. Hi Stephanie,
    Apologies for not getting back to you. But I don't get any notification if anyone has posted on here.
    If you are still interested in Blackhen,you can now follow us on fb: www.facebook.com/BlackhenEducation.
    We are currently running a survey for parents of English - speaking children living in France.Please contact me if you would like to take part.


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