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Bilingualism of expat children and the role of the employer

Adaptability of families and assistance from the employer for families of expat employees are of great importance when a family (temporarily) moves abroad for an assignment. A well-thought-out plan is required in order for the employee to focus on carrying out his or her assignment, without further worries about the children’s soft landing or the possible culture shock they may experience. Experience has shown that it is essential that the families of expat employees are able to properly settle in the host country in order for an assignment to be successful and a major part of family-wellbeing is adapting quickly to the new language.

What can an employer offer an employee with children to ensure that a language transition runs as smoothly as possible, before, during and upon return from an assignment? In order to answer this question, we first need to know what bilingualism is, when can you speak of bilingualism and whether children benefit from learning a second language during an assignment abroad.

Definition of bilingualism

The two most commonly used definitions are as follows: using two languages or having two languages at the mother tongue level. Both definitions are used when talking about bilingualism. However, there could be a large level difference in language proficiency between the two. The first definition, being able to use two languages, can simply mean mastering common words and proverbs and thus “surviving” in an environment where this language is spoken. The second definition, which involves having two languages at the mother tongue level, has much stricter conditions of language proficiency that must be met. In reality, the level of most bilinguals is likely to be somewhere between the two definitions (Ref. Chin Ng & Wigglesworth, 2007).

Pre-assignment support

Prior to relocation, an employer can provide assistance in assessing the different levels of education in a foreign country and the language skills of the child concerned. One can think of diploma validation and evaluating the education needs of the children in order to create a successful integration into their new educational system. The assessment must also take into account the duration of the assignment, e.g. a short term assignment for a few months or a longer period of time (several years). Should it be the latter, then one could also consider enrolling children into public schools or the choice could be for an international school with a similar education program as in their home country. You can imagine that attending a public school with education in the host country language both requires and enhances bilingualism.

Support during assignment

During the assignment there are several ways in which an employer can assist accompanying children with their bilingual skills. Besides offering language trainings for their host and home language with their peers, companies can also assist by organising social events for expat children and encourage expat families with children to move to child friendly areas, inform them on the different possibilities, as well as the importance of socialising with expats and locals in similar situations (Ref. Aetena, 2019). These company events can vary from different yearly social events such as international holidays and company sporting events. This will give the children an opportunity to make contact with their peers who may be experiencing the same challenges of settling in to a new location and who also have the same experience in language learning. In addition they can meet children who have the same opportunities in learning the language of the host country and at the same time also fit into the home country (Ref. April International, 2019 ).

Post-assignment support

Upon repatriation there lies an important challenge for children when returning to their home country. Children who have become accustomed to using a different language for schooling and social events, may need a ‘refresher’ language course prior to returning to their home country. Not in the least to maintain a level in which they can re-join their local education system. This is something which is sometimes easily forgotten as it is an assumption that children will be able to adjust easily. However, the impact of moving from country to country can be quite immense for children, as their way of life as they know it has changed once again. Here an employer can assist with not only offering assistance with the home country language but also to provide language trainings to maintain the language which they have learned in their host country.

The benefit to a child being bilingual, and which assistance is necessary for this child, is dependent on many different factors such as the age of the child, the duration of the assignment, the home and host location and the family situation. For an employer here lies an important role to find and apply a tailor made solution for each child and situation, thus helping the child in his or her future (educational) life that has been severely disrupted by the assignment abroad of the parent.