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What I REALLY think about language lessons and weekend schools...



Hello everyone! In this week's YouTube video and blog post, I’d like to discuss a topic that’s close to the heart of many bilingual and trilingual families out there…


That’s right, we’ll be talking about language lessons and weekend schools. I’ll share with you my personal experience of these classes over the years, and go over the pros and cons of whether or not you should pay for classes to help your child become bilingual.


If you want to hear my final verdict – please keep watching!


Our own experience and current arrangements


As of June 2023, my son has been going to Russian school every Saturday for close to five years. He started in September 2018, when he was just 2 years old! Our daughter also started at the same school almost 2 years ago.


My son also briefly went to a Chinese school in London on Sundays for one or two school terms, just before Covid started. However, the school shut down during Covid, and for 2 to 3 years, neither of our children had any sort of formal instruction in Mandarin. In October last year, we began taking online Chinese lessons after my friend recommended the school to us, and so for the last 8 months or so, both our children have been taking 30-minute one-on-one Chinese lessons via the Wukong School platform on a weekly basis. I’ll put a link to the company’s website in the description box below, just in case you’re interested – please note that I am not affiliated with them in any way!


So with all this experience, I think it’s fair to say that we are quite familiar with different types of language classes.


Which brings me to the next point.


Not all weekend schools are created equal.


One important thing to keep in mind is this: not all weekend schools are created equal! Take our kids’ Russian school, for example. Every single child who goes to that school has at least one native Russian-speaking parent, often two. This is very much a school that caters to Russian-speaking families who speak Russian at home to varying degrees. They send their kids to this school so they can do fun things in Russian, expand their vocabulary and, very importantly, learn to read and write. The kids get to study history, maths and science in Russian. The school also provides support to parents who are perhaps preparing to transition their children back into a Russian-speaking education system.


This is in sharp contrast to the Chinese school we sent Alexey to. From what I could see, about half of the families there had one parent of Chinese heritage who may or may not speak Chinese themselves. The other half were non-Chinese families who wanted their child to learn some Mandarin “for fun”, so to speak. Very few families from that school actually speak Chinese at home. That being the case, the lessons were tailored to children with very little prior knowledge of the language. While our son did seem to enjoy the lessons, we decided not to continue after the school closed at the start of the pandemic.


So essentially, before sending your child to any weekend language school, you need to decide what your needs are, and whether a particular school is a good fit for your needs.


Pitfall: Inadequate exposure


Now, let’s move on to the main reason why I’m not totally in favour of language lessons and weekend schools. The reason is this: no language lesson or weekend school will provide enough linguistic exposure and input for your child to achieve fluency. And the danger is that, by paying for lessons or weekend school, parents can be lured into a false sense of security that they’ve “done their part”, so to speak.


Ultimately, it depends on what your goal is. If you simply want your child to gain some initial exposure to the language and culture while having fun, then these classes can be a good option as an enrichment activity. But if your goal is for your child to become fluent in the target language, be very wary of relying on such classes – they are never a substitute for having a bilingual environment at home. I’ve said this in another video, but it’s worth repeating here: language acquisition has to start at home.


If you want to find out more, check out my other video, where I discuss the top 5 mistakes parents make when trying to raise bilingual children. I’ll include the link in the description box below.


The number one pitfall of online lessons


As I mentioned in the introduction, my children have been taking online Chinese lessons for about 8 months. I think I’m now in a position to share my view on these lessons, and online classes in general.


In a nutshell, I don’t think they are particularly effective. In fact, I think once our current lesson credits run out, I most likely will not continue with these lessons, or will at least take a break.


Why is that?


One word – distraction. I always sit in on my kids’ online lessons, and what I’ve seen, again and again, is how inherently distracting electronic devices are. We don’t have iPads at home, so our kids have their lessons on laptop computers. And seriously, I can tell you this – it’s like the children feel compelled to tap away on the keyboard, mess with the trackpad, or click random buttons on the screen. They literally cannot help themselves, even with my constant supervision!


It has to be said that the lessons themselves are, actually, not bad. A teacher delivers each lesson in real time, using the company’s proprietary software platform, which is based on interactive activities that incorporate attractive cartoon characters and graphics. After each lesson, the school also sets homework, which is also completed online and mostly takes the form of screen-based interactive activities.


You can see that “interactive” is the buzzword here. As parents, we’re constantly being sold this idea that anything “interactive” is good. Interactive means fun; it means engaging. But what I’ve seen is that when “interaction” takes place electronically, in the form of button-clicking, it becomes distracting and even mechanical. The child’s focus seems to be taken away from the content they’re interacting with; rather, their attention seems to be directed to the act of clicking the right button.


Most importantly, such activities just don’t seem particularly effective. Often, I find myself spending 20 minutes doing interactive homework with my son, going over the same two or three Chinese characters. The next day, when I reviewed those characters with him, he could hardly recall them. The retention rate seems quite low relative to the amount of time we spend doing such homework. Based on my own experience, our children retain information far better when we use paper-based learning material. This is something I want to discuss in more detail in another video in the future, but the bottom line is that I do not think that online lessons are an effective way for young children to learn.


The financial cost


Now, let’s move on to my next point: money! Language lessons and weekend schools can be expensive. Costs vary hugely but let me give you a breakdown of how much we spend on language tuition as a family. The Russian school costs about £50 per Saturday, per child. It’s term time only, so we spend about £3,900 a year on these Saturday classes. The Chinese school costs about £10 per 30-minute lesson per child, and each of them has one lesson per week. We only book lessons for term time only so we get a break during the school holidays. This equates to about £780 per year. So all up, we spend £4,680 a year on Russian and Chinese lessons for two children.


Yikes.


That’s a lot of money, guys! Is it money well spent? At Russian school, the kids get about 3 hours’ worth of class time every Saturday, so the per-hour cost isn’t too bad. As for the Chinese lessons, due to the shortcomings I discussed earlier in this video, I don’t think they are particularly effective, and I’m not sure we will continue.


I genuinely think that our kids’ language skills might improve more if all this money went towards an extended stay in either Russia or China. However, since this is not realistic for us at this point in time, plus the cost of a trip to Russia or China would actually far exceed what we currently spend on language classes, we think our current expenditure is justifiable as it helps give our children some extra exposure to the language.


In short, the financial cost of such classes is definitely something you need to consider. If you’re a French family living in the UK, for instance, it really might be a better idea to use that money on an extended holiday in France, where the child will get truly immersive language exposure.


How classes might help: reading and writing


Well, so far in this video, I might have given the impression that I don’t rate language lessons and weekend schools that highly, but that’s not entirely true.


One thing that I think such classes can be really good for is helping a child build a foundation in reading and writing.


While I firmly believe that listening and speaking can, and indeed, should, be acquired at home for the most part, not all parents have the time or patience to teach their children how to read and write in the target language.


Here I must emphasise that it is entirely possible to teach your child to read and write yourself. In his book Maximizing Your Child’s Bilingual Ability, the author Adam Beck talks about how he taught his children to read and write English at home without any additional help, and how the children managed to attain a literacy level comparable to children of the same age in the U.S., where the author is from.


I’ve been teaching my kids to read and write in Chinese too for a few years, and while it’s do-able, it certainly isn’t easy. It takes an inordinate amount of patience and perseverance, and I think this is where language classes can come in to plug the gap – a classroom environment can be a good way for children to learn reading and writing in a structured manner, and homework can be a useful way for parents to see progress and stay on top of things.


Immersion


Lastly, let’s talk about weekend schools specifically. I think a half-day or full-day program on the weekend can be really useful in giving your child total immersion in the target language, even if it’s just for a few hours a week. To achieve this, I recommend seeking out a language school that uses the target language exclusively, or almost exclusively. A school that uses a lot of English will not have the same effect. But like I said earlier, if your goal is not necessarily to help your child become bilingual, but you’re just doing it more “for fun” or as an enrichment activity, then this aspect isn’t quite so important.


Either way, just bear in that mind language lessons on their own will not provide enough exposure.


My final verdict


So, here’s my final verdict: if money is no object, language lessons and weekend schools can certainly be useful as a supplementary tool for language learning, but always remember that language acquisition has to start at home, and that you should not think of language classes as a shortcut to bilingualism, or a substitute for parental input. And if your budget is limited, it might well be better to spend money on an extended stay in the country where the target language is spoken.


So that’s it for today! I hope you found the video / this post helpful.


As always, I'd love to know what you think about today's topic. Please comment, share and subscribe :) Thank you!

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