Language Development for MKs

by Jan Edwards Dormer

How families and organizations can build a foundation of knowledge about language acquisition and its relationship to academic learning—especially as it relates to missionary kids.

I nervously entered the fourth grade Brazilian classroom, clinging to my dad’s hand until he had to leave. For the rest of the school day I didn’t understand anything said to me, and I spoke to no one. Each day passed in the same way. I copied strange words from the board into my notebook, without knowing what they meant. Neither my teacher nor my classmates spoke any English, and I, having just arrived a couple of months earlier with my missionary parents from the U.S., spoke almost no Portuguese. The teacher yelled sometimes. Although I never understood the words, I became convinced she was mad at me. I sometimes cried myself to sleep, and finally my parents said I didn’t have to go back.

Fast forward thirty years. My husband and I were on our way to Brazil as missionaries, with daughters in third and fourth grades. As a Missionary Kid (MK) growing up in Brazil I had finally learned Portuguese and wanted that for my daughters. But I did not want them to experience the pain of “immersion language learning” that I had felt as a child.

Armed with a degree in foreign language education, I set about trying to create a good language learning experience for my children. We did decide to put them in a local Brazilian school. However, we hired a vivacious Brazilian college student to be their “translator” as they both entered the Brazilian third grade class. For a year, Flavia sat beside them, quietly providing words and phrases in English as needed. When language learning got tough, she took them outside to let off steam and played her own little Portuguese-learning games with them. After a year, our older daughter was able to move to her correct class, managing without a translator, but with a friend in the class who was bilingual. Our younger daughter needed Flavia’s help off and on for another year. After three years in the school, it became apparent that our experiment had been successful. Both girls were working at or above grade level academically, both felt positive about the school environment, and most of all, both were fluent in Portuguese.

Diversity in the Mission Community
The mission community is increasingly diverse, with sending countries from all parts of the globe, many more bicultural marriages and families, and second and third-generation MKs on the field as adult missionaries. Consider these scenarios, each involving a different set of language learning factors:

• The Smith family arrives from the U.S. with two children—one in grade two, one in grade four. They would like to put their children into the local school for MKs; however, they have known other children who have gone there who haven’t learned the local language. They could home school their children and have a private tutor to learn the local language, but they are not sure how effective this would be. They could put their children into a good local school, but there seems to be minimal English support there.

• The Lee family arrives from Korea with two children—one in grade seven, one in grade eight. Their children already speak some English and the family wants to put them in the local international school. However, the school warns that the children might be at risk of graduating without either sufficient English or sufficient Korean to engage in university-level work. The Lees wonder how their children can learn English and the local language, while still maintaining their Korean language skills.

• Tim Stewart is a British national, married to Silvia, a native of the country in which they minister. They moved to their country of service before their children were born. Used to hearing two languages spoken at home, the children are fully bilingual, and are now in grades five and six. So far, they have attended local schools; recently, however, the Stewarts have noticed that their children have difficulty explaining their school subjects in English. Since they envision their children going to university in Great Britain, they wonder if they should now switch to an English-speaking school.      

Addressing the issue of “language needs” for such diverse families no longer fits into a nice, neat package. Many mission organizations recognize such diversity and no longer put forward universally applicable requirements where language and MK education are concerned. But in the absence of hard and fast policies, both families and organizations need a foundation of knowledge about language acquisition and its relationship to academic learning. With more options than ever available for language learning, parents simply need to know the right questions to ask.  

A Widespread Misconception
One of the most crucial considerations in missionary transitions is the education of children. Fortunately, the mission community has developed considerably in the area of “MK education” since I was a child. Whole organizations, such as Interaction International, are devoted solely to MK education and care. Recent articles in EMQ have provided lists of educational options for mission families (see Wrobbel 2004) and opened dialogue about the purpose and goals of traditional “MK schools” (see Haile 2006). But there is still one area of MK education where I think misconceptions abound: MK language learning. I still hear the viewpoint, “Don’t worry about the kids. Kids pick up languages easily.” When such opinions are casually tossed about, I usually want to jump in and tell them about my fourth grade language learning experience!  

The reality is that children do not just “pick up” languages effortlessly. Lynne Díaz-Rico and Kathryn Weed state, “Contrary to popular belief, adults proceed through early stages of syntactic and morphological development faster than children do; older children acquire a second language faster than younger children” (2002, 34). Children’s seemingly quick language learning can usually be explained by the fact that they require significantly fewer words and structures to appear fluent. It’s fairly easy to talk like a 4-year-old; it’s much harder to talk like an educated 34-year-old.

The view that children just “pick up” foreign languages is sometimes the basis for placing them in local schools and in language immersion situations. Local schools can be a good option for language learning, as can international schools, and having a language tutor at home. But there are several important questions to consider when making such choices about language study for children. This article attempts to provide information regarding these important factors: (1) broader academic development, (2) the time required for language learning, (3) appropriate methodologies, and (4) emotional factors.

1. How will language learning impact academic development? Language and learning are inextricably linked, and parents must ensure that children have sufficient language ability for academic success. Children can sometimes develop two academic languages, either through effective bilingual education or through substantial supplemental language exposure/study outside a school system. But in many mission communities these options are not available, and parents do well to consider where they expect their children to attend university, and plan for language development leading to that goal. The following aspects of language and learning can help parents to understand the development of academic language and make wise decisions.

The difference between communicative and academic language. In 1979, Jim Cummins developed a theory which shed light on childhood second language acquisition in educational settings, and which remains instrumental in guiding thinking about language and learning. He defined two different kinds of language proficiency: Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). Basic conversational ability, or BICS, can be acquired in one to two years, giving the impression of overall fluency and proficiency. However, the higher level language proficiency needed for academic success, CALP, takes between five and seven years to acquire (Cummins 2002).  

When children master near-perfect pronunciation in a second language, and communicate with their peers on the playground with ease, parents and teachers alike often assume they are then “equal” to native speakers in terms of academic linguistic ability. However, this cannot be assumed. Academic language use involves far more than playground phrases. Cummins has described it in this way:

Not only is there an ever-increasing vocabulary and concept load involving words that are rarely encountered in everyday out-of-school contexts, but syntactic features (e.g., passive, rather than active, voice constructions) and discourse conventions (e.g., using cohesive devices effectively in writing) also become increasingly distant from conversational uses of language in non-academic contexts. (2001, 61)

The language threshold needed for academic success. Underestimating the learning load for developing academic language can have serious, detrimental effects on children. Cummins posited a threshold hypothesis:  “Children must attain a critical level, or threshold, of linguistic proficiency in order to avoid cognitive deficit” (Díaz-Rico and Weed 2002, 42). The threshold hypothesis warns that children cannot progress academically if taught in a language in which they are not sufficiently proficient. It is essential that children develop CALP, and not merely conversational ability, in their language of learning.   

The concept of CALP applies not only to children studying in a foreign language, but also to children returning to their home countries after having studied in a foreign language on the field. Sometimes, the “new foreign language” is the child’s mother tongue. In such situations, children may be most at risk.

The importance of “academic talk.” One of the more recent additions to our understanding of the academic language needed for educational success is the inter-relatedness of spoken and written language. Whereas in the past extensive reading and writing were touted as the way to help second language learners catch up with their peers in academic language proficiency, there is a recognition now that more is needed. What, essentially, is needed is talking about text. According to David Corson, “The textual context for word learning needs supplementing through motivated activities using dialogue structured around that textual material: by talking about text” (1997, 702).  

When our daughters switched in junior high from a Brazilian school to American online education, we found a need to talk extensively with them about what they were learning. This helped them develop academic vocabulary in English that they had previously only known in Portuguese. Schools with large populations of second language learners would do well to remember the need for children to engage in academic talk. Fortunately, newer student-centered methodologies encourage this; however, we need to recognize that it is important not only for content learning, but for the development of CALP as well.

2. How long does it take to learn a language? We have already seen that basic communicative ability can be acquired in one to two years, whereas academic language skills in a foreign language often takes five to seven years. Whether parents envision their children learning the foreign language for the purpose of academic study or not, they do well not to underestimate the time it requires. When considering the time factor, Cynthia Storrs suggests that parents ask, “Are the benefits a child may receive linguistically and culturally going to outweigh the initial discomfort or even trauma he may experience by being placed in such a different learning environment?” (1997, 16). She continues,

Placing a child in a second-language school environment for a time inadequate for him to acquire a conversational use of the language will probably have few advantages, either linguistic or academic. In fact, it may well be counter-productive to the educational process. (1997, 17)

When children from non-English-speaking families are placed in English-speaking schools, this should happen at a young enough age to ensure sufficient time to acquire the academic language needed for academic success.

3. What kind of instruction is necessary for effective language learning? That language instruction should be quality language instruction should go without saying. However, I have seen many mission families put up with substandard and even detrimental language learning experiences for a number of reasons. First, a new arrival on the field is often not in the best position to make demands of the language learning experience. Everything is new and the missionaries don’t want to appear critical; therefore, language learning becomes part of an agonizing daily grind that people just accept.  

Second, in some countries there may not seem to be any other option. Local language teachers are either untrained in foreign language teaching or they have been trained in very different ways, often placing a higher value on rote memory and testing than on communicative language skills. Many foreign language teachers lack clear concepts of leveling (gearing content, methodology, and evaluation appropriately to different levels) and pacing (providing new language and structures in incremental amounts with sufficient reinforcement)—two key ingredients for effective language learning.

If children are learning the local language by attending a local school, lack of quality may be evident in situations such as: having no English support; requiring new language learners to take the same tests as the native speakers; not allowing a “silent period” during which no speaking is required; and a lack of teaching techniques which would aid content subject learning (such as the use of visuals, diagrams, and experiments). Although language learning can never be called easy, it does not have to be painful, should never be humiliating, and should often be enjoyable. Children have a natural desire to learn, and this will aid them in learning a new language—as long as the instructional setting does not kill it with poor methodology!

When adult missionaries set out to learn a foreign language, their high level of intrinsic motivation can carry them through some very discouraging language learning times. But when children are placed in such poor instructional environments, not only are they unlikely to learn much of the language, but they may very well begin to dislike not only the language, but the local people and country as well. This is a high price to pay for substandard language classes.

4. How will the language learning affect my child emotionally? Most importantly is the need to consider the impact of the proposed language learning scheme on the child’s emotional well-being. Children—indeed, all language learners—vary in many ways. We vary in terms of tolerance of ambiguity; the degree of discomfort we experience when we don’t understand the language around us; social needs; and in a host of other ways determined by our personalities, learning styles, and experiences. It is neither effective nor appropriate to view language learning as an assembly line procedure in which the same process works for all.

For children, language learning is not an academic endeavor, but a social one. Dave Pollock’s  description of how children may experience new learning environments brings home the possible negative impact on children:

For many children, loneliness and the fear of not making friends are key issues in their minds. They are not as worried about the educational issues as they are about the social issues. Being mocked, rejected, and feeling alone are typical new student anxieties. (Pollock, Brooks, and Blomberg 1999, 3)

The fact that language acquisition is viewed primarily in social terms by children guarantees that it has the potential to affect their self-esteem. Research has shown a positive correlation between high self-esteem and language success; however, the cause/effect relationship between the two is not clear. Díaz-Rico and Weed state that, “High self-esteem may cause language success or result from language success” (2002, 25). So, while there is certainly no reason to fear low self-esteem as a result of a second or foreign language context, parents should be aware that, “using a foreign language can threaten a person’s sense of self because speakers know they cannot represent themselves fully in a new language or understand others readily” (2002, 28).

A sometimes overlooked aspect of children’s emotional health is busyness. When parents are so eager for their children to learn the local language—and sometimes parents even expect their children to simultaneously learn a foreign school language and a foreign local language—the burden of learning may be too heavy. Children need time to play after school; they need unstructured time. A daily grind of full school days, followed by private tutoring, followed by two or three hours of homework, is a recipe for emotional burnout.
Answering the Questions
Each family must make their own choices regarding their children’s language acquisition.  But the questions highlighted in this article can provide some guidance for our fictitious families:

• The Smith family does well to consider whether their children will learn the local language by attending a local school for MKs. Unfortunately, some such schools do not have adequate programs for learning the local language. In addition, sometimes school schedules are so busy that children have little time to form friendships with local children or participate in their parents’ ministries. This is another unfortunate aspect of some MK schooling. If the family chooses a local school option, they should ensure that the school understands the unique needs of second language learners. The school may not understand these issues initially, but may be open to learning. When we put our daughters into a local school with a translator, this was an entirely new experience for the school. But they worked with us, and both our family and the school benefited from the experience.

• The Lee family should carefully consider whether their children have sufficient English skills, or enough time to develop sufficient English skills, to avoid deficits in academic learning. If not, they may want to consider home schooling or online studies in Korean. English-medium schools should have good English testing systems in place so that they can provide accurate guidance for parents in such situations. They can assist parents who do choose home schooling or online options by opening up their school electives, such as sports and music programs, for such families. If the Lees do choose the English school option, they will do well to make no other language demands on their children, but fully support their struggles to acquire the academic English that they need.

• The Stewart children are in the enviable position of being bilingual. But the parents are beginning to notice the development of academic language, and are noticing that this language is developing in the local language, not English. Since they have already decided that they want their children to return to Great Britain for university, they need to take steps to ensure the development of CALP in English. If the local school system is good academically, they may be able to leave their children in this school and develop academic English at home by having conversations about content subjects, encouraging a lot of reading, and enrolling their children in some online courses when they are in high school to develop writing skills in English. If they do choose to switch to an English-medium school at this point, their children will not lose their bilingualism, but simply will not develop CALP in the local language.

Making Decisions as a Family
Language learning decisions affect the entire family. With sufficient knowledge about language learning, parents can be wise in considering various options. Ultimately, however, the most important voice in the decision-making process should be that of the child. School-aged children should have a strong say in what kinds of language learning experiences they undergo.

I was fortunate. I had parents who listened to my feelings and had the wisdom to take me out of an emotionally traumatic learning environment. They cared enough about me to go against the prevailing sentiments of the day (i.e., “Just tough it out” and “It will be good for her in the long run”). When we moved to my parents’ location of ministry, I was able to learn Portuguese by having a good Brazilian friend and by attending another local school after I had a better grasp of the language. I developed a positive view of the country and its people, and later returned as an adult missionary. Language learning is only one piece of the cross-cultural ministry puzzle, but it can have a significant impact on both children and families. It’s important that we make it as effective as possible.

Corson, David. 1997. “The Learning and Use of Academic English Words.” Language Learning 47(4):671-718.

Cummins, Jim. 1979. “Cognitive/Academic Language Proficiency, Linguistic Interdependence, the Optimum Age Question and Some Other Matters.” Working Papers on Bilingualism 19:121-129.

__________.  2001. Language, Power, and Pedagogy: Bilingual Children in the Crossfire. Clevedon, U.K.: Multilingual Matters.

___________.  2002. “Reading and the ESL Student.” Orbit 33(1):19-22.

Díaz-Rico, Lynne and Kathryn Weed. 2002. The Cross-cultural, Language, and Academic Development Handbook.  Boston, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon.

Haile, Dorothy. 2006. “Where Are We Going in MK Education?” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 42(4):462-470.

Pollock, Dave, Dave Brooks, and Janet Blomberg. 1999. “Transitioning between Educational Options.” Interact 8(2):2-6.

Storrs, Cynthia. 1997. “My Child in the National Schools.” Interact 6(3):16-17.

Wrobbel, Karen. 2004. “Educational Options for Missionary Kids.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 40(2):204-210.


Dr. Jan Edwards Dormer grew up in Brazil as the daughter of missionaries and has spent the past twenty-five years in English ministries. She and her family have served in Indonesia and Brazil, and are currently on furlough in Indiana.

Copyright  © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.   

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