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Raising Bilinguals: Tips from the Coal Face


At Struck Fluent, many of our clients as well as tutors Alice and Lucy, are raising bilingual families. We’re often asked for our thoughts on how to ensure children grow up fluent in both their parents’ language (or languages!) so we asked Lucy to share her top tips and tricks for multi-lingual family life.

What is fluency anyway?

When you start breaking it down, fluency in a language is a pretty involved idea. Language teachers divide language into four skills which are categorised as ‘active’ (speaking and writing) and ‘passive’ (listening and reading). Even in our first languages, we’ll be better at some of these skills than others and depending on the kind of work we do and the lifestyles we lead, we’ll also need to use some more than others.

When you start out on your bilingual journey, it’s worth thinking about how important each of these skills are to you and your family, and how realistic a balance you can achieve whilst keeping your sanity. For example, my husband and I are bringing our son up bilingual in English and Korean. Most important to us is that he can communicate with his grandparents and extended family, so our focus is on speaking and listening. Options for formally learning to read and write Korean are limited where we live, so while we read to him in Korean and will teach him the Korean writing system when he’s old enough, we are more relaxed about these skills: we’d love him to have the option to live and work in Korea if he wants to, and feel that with a solid foundation in the spoken language he will be able to pick up writing skills later in life.

Motivation, motivation, motivation

Given the above, it’s rare that bilingual children will be equally able in both languages. They will almost always have stronger and weaker skills in both a primary and a secondary language, with the language of the country they live in being the primary one. This is normal, and in their younger years children will generally be happy to natter away in both regardless.  It is worth considering though, that as they grow up children will spend increasing amounts of time outside the home interacting in and – this is the crucial bit – building relationships in their primary language. Relationships are the lifeblood of language: linguists highlight every generation of teens inventing their own language to mark themselves out as separate from adults, or twins inventing whole languages of their own. Especially by the time they hit their teens, peer relationships become children’s focus, and unless they have a clear set of motivations to use their secondary language, the appeal begins to fade. Add in some standard teenage rebellion and fear of Being Different and it’s easy to see how the secondary language becomes a chore; an imposition; something they only use to speak to their dad anyway so what’s the point (door slam, eyeroll, sigh).

One way to combat this is to provide contexts outside the home in which the secondary language is spoken, thus helping children (and you!) to build a network of other secondary language speakers. If you’re in a big city this can be pretty simple – just rock on down to your local foreign-language playgroup (check ours out here) or hit up Meetup for some relaxed socialising. Chinese speakers in particular can be pretty sure of a Saturday school nearby for more formal learning and friend-making. If you live further afield, this is tricksier and you may have to travel further or set up your own groups.

Finances allowing, the more regular you can make trips to the country where your language is spoken, the better – many families dedicate summer holidays to such trips, or head over for the main festivals – this is a great option as it helps children participate in and understand their second culture as well as their second language.

If all of the above are impossible, don’t despair – there are a number of approaches to using the language in the home that work well too, and we look at these below.

Which language when?

Bilingual families usually lean towards the One Parent One Language method (OPOL for short). This is pretty much what it says on the tin: children communicate with one parent in the primary language and the other in the secondary language. Sounds great, right? And in many ways it is – in fact it’s widely regarded as the most successful method out there. But. As discussed above, if it’s all you do, after a while children cotton on that the only time they’re using the secondary language is with that one parent. Also, how do you have a three-way conversation between parents and children using this method? Especially if you don’t speak your partner’s language yourself? As children get older and have a decent foundation in their secondary language, it can make sense not to stick too rigidly to OPOL. There are a few things you can do to mix it up a bit and keep that motivation flowing:

  • If you don’t speak your partner’s language, get in touch and let us help you learn it! Aim at least to muddle through everyday family conversation: this has the dual effect of setting a good example and allowing your children the opportunity to teach you – this reversal of the typical power dynamic is often really good for keeping kids and teens engaged.


  • Mix up how and when you use the secondary language. For some families, this means dividing the week into – for example – ‘German days’ and ‘English days’. For us, what’s really worked is concentrating on space rather than time and dividing our flat into ‘Korean rooms’ and ‘English rooms’. This adds an element of humour and playfulness – kids can enforce this rule on parents (reversal of power dynamic again) and can literally step out if they need to switch into the other language, before plunging back in again. For us, it makes things a bit silly and – for me as an adult language learner too – a bit less burdensome.


  • Bring the second culture into the home as much as the language. Media is your friend here: family film nights and series binges, second-language music and second-culture festival celebrations all make great opportunities to dive into the secondary language.

We hope this has been helpful – giving your kids a second language is an awesome thing and opens so many doors for them. It’s also super tough so bilingual-family readers: we salute you! Let us know what you think of our ideas – we always love to hear from you.

Lucy McCormick is Head of Client Services at Struck Fluent, a community of tutors specialising in Modern Foreign Languages and ESL. She has extensive experience as a teacher and tutor of French and ESL in the UK, China, Korea, Vietnam and India. When not teaching or language geeking, you can generally find her in the company of a book, a gin or (preferably) both.

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Teaching Materials Series: Picture Books

Welcome to our new blog series! Here we will be introducing some of our most commonly used teaching materials and how we use them. As always we welcome your feedback and – for the teachers among you – if you have any ideas to suggest, we’d love to hear them (and add them to our stash!)

This week we’re talking picture books. At Struck Fluent, these are an essential part of our repertoire with Young Learners. We use a mixture of classic English books in translation and original foreign-language texts, and both always go down a storm. As well as being fun, interactive and supportive of our students’ school learning, there are tons of benefits to using picture books when learning a foreign language. These include:

Visual cues


Even children with no former experience of a language can follow a story from the pictures, and learn to positively identify the new language with a fun activity. As the children progress, they begin to link word and image: one of my 5-year-old French students loves counting and naming the fruit in La Chenille qui fait des trous (The Very Hungry Caterpillar), for example. All along, they are developing listening skills: becoming used to the rhythm and flow of the language and later being able to pick out and identify words and phrases.

Motivation to speak


A new language can feel overwhelming, and even at a young age children have often internalised a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ which causes them to hold back from speaking in sessions. In picture books, language is stripped back to its bare essentials and accompanied by bright, attractive pictures which enable children to follow the story (as discussed above). The language used also tends to be fun and enticing: children love making the different sounds of the grass, mud and snowstorm in foreign-langauge versions of We’re going on a Bear Hunt, or joining their tutor in shouting ‘Va-t’en!’ to the big green monster in Va-t’en, Grand Monstre Vert. Much like songs and chants – other mainstays of our Young Learner sessions – children need no encouragement to repeat the sounds, words and phrases they discover in picture books. Way more effective –  and most importantly way more fun – than drilling vocab!

Introducing and supporting new language

Once children are comfortable with their tutor and the new language, picture books can support a range of learning objectives: this week, for example, I have used La Surprise de Handa to focus on animals and fruit, and Je m’habille et je te croque (see video above) to introduce clothes. Linguists have long trumpeted the benefits of learning a language in context in order to help it stick in the mind, and stories are a perfect context for Young Learners.Often, if children are struggling to remember a word I can prompt them with a scene from the story we’ve read (what fruit did the ostrich steal from Handa?) and they will be delighted to find they can remember the French for guava after all!

Lucy McCormick is Head of Client Services at Struck Fluent, a community of tutors specialising in Modern Foreign Languages and ESL. She has extensive experience as a teacher and tutor of French and ESL in the UK, China, Korea, Vietnam and India. When not teaching or language geeking, you can generally find her in the company of a book, a gin or (preferably) both.



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Three things UK schools can learn from East Asia. Hint – they’re not what you think

In my last post I looked at the dangers of UK media and policymakers’ championing of the East Asian educational model, and mentioned some of the drawbacks to a system that values high-stakes summative examinations over all  else.

In this post, I’m looking at the positives we can take from the East Asian approach – again, I’m focussing on my time teaching ESL in Korea but my points also apply broadly to many other countries in the region.

Disclaimer: I am not for a second suggesting we adopt the following principles exactly as they exist in Korea – our cultural contexts are too far apart for that. However, I think they may offer some interesting food for thought and could be worked into the British context to our benefit.

  1. Attract the Best

Once a highly respected profession, the status of teaching has taken a huge knock over the last couple of decades. As job conditions have worsened, media attacks on the teachers have become de rigeur. Add to the mix the fact that salaries pale in comparison next to alternative professions and even a die-hard bleeding heart like me can see the attraction of Anything But Teaching.

To address the resultant drop in young people going into teaching, routes into teaching have diversified. In addition to the traditional PGCE, prospective teachers can choose School Centred Initial Teacher Training (SCITT), the controversial Teach First or – a new addition since 2012 – School Direct, which enables graduates in shortage subjects to apply directly to a school and join the teaching team immediately. In spite of this, the dropout rate continues to skyrocket, currently sitting at around a third within the first five years.

In Korea, by contrast, education is held in high esteem as the principal route out of the devastation of the Korean War. Teaching also commands a pay packet way above the OECD average at senior level.  Primary teachers must all train at a select number of institutions and whereas Secondary teachers have more varied options for training, the huge numbers vying to get into the profession mean that schools can afford to be selective.These are just a few of the reasons why teaching is a highly respected profession, is extremely competitive to get into, and has unspurprisingly high retention rates.

2. Let them do their job

Many of the graduates currently rejecting teaching will themselves have come through a State system that has progressively strangled much of the joy out of teaching and learning via a series of ever-changing targets and ever-narrower assessments for both students and teachers.

Over in Korea, although students labour under the yoke of the standardised test, teachers have a much higher level of autonomy – exactly as you would expect of a trained professional. Though my methods (Communicative Language Teaching) differed from my Korean colleagues’, I was largely given free rein in the classroom which allowed me to be vastly more creative, to try out new approaches, and to pick myself up and carry on when they failed. I genuinely believe my teaching improved more during that year than any other as a result.

3. Let them be human!

The real work of teaching lies not in subject knowledge, theory of pedagogy or target-meeting. That’s not to dismiss the value or challenges inherent to these, but any teacher will tell you that the real meat of the job is in building human relationships. Mainly, what this looks like is an attempt to establish mutual trust and respect between yourself and a child in order to get them to allow you to teach them. In the UK, as in much of the Western world, this is a tough call. We are used to compartmentalising our lives – professional v personal; work v home – and we are taught that there are strict limits on how far we should interfere even in our families’ lives and decisions, let alone our students’. Students come to relationships with teachers from the same perspective, making any attempts at trust-building a tricksy balancing act at the best of times, and that’s before coming to students who have additional needs.

While the Korean system is far more academically standardised than our own, and far more stressful in some respects, I observed and was part of pastoral work that I could not have done in the UK simply because we conceptualise the teacher-student relationship so very differently. While Eurocentric depictions of East Asian teachers tend to focus on authoritarian figures, this is only one side of the story: there is a long history of teachers being considered ‘second parents’, with students encouraged to rely on, and form close personal relationships with, them. At first, this was a huge culture shock: when my colleagues blithely commented that their students saw them as family, urged me to take a struggling student for coffee in town to get to the bottom of their troubles, or wondered why I hadn’t accepted my class’ Facebook friend requests, my Safeguarding alarm bells went doolally. And while – again – I wouldn’t recommend following this model to the letter, it made me consider how hard it is in the UK for teachers to break down the barriers between ‘them’ and ‘us’, and how good it felt to be supported in helping my students as whole people in this way.

Lucy McCormick is Head of Client Services at Struck Fluent, a community of tutors specialising in Modern Foreign Languages and ESL. She has extensive experience as a teacher and tutor of French and ESL in the UK, China, Korea, Vietnam and India. When not teaching or language geeking, you can generally find her in the company of a book, a gin or (preferably) both.

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Toughening Up: Changes to UK Assessments and the Fascination with East Asia

The last few years have seen politicians, commentators and the media showing an increased interest in East Asian education systems as a preferable model to our own. Michael Gove’s..um…choice statement back in 2010  that he’d like to see a ‘cultural revolution just like the one they had in China’ (yes, you read that right), the BBC’s School Swap: Korea Style last year, and their provocatively-titled Are our kids Tough Enough? in 2015  are just a few examples of a phenomenon which has accompanied growing criticism of our ‘lazy’, ‘coddled’ pupils and a shift in how they are assessed at GCSE and A-Level.  Coursework has been all but done away with and assessment is now focussed on high-stakes summative examinations, with grade boundaries and course content re-jigged in order to make the exams more ‘challenging’.

The general consensus seems to be that our kids are, in fact, not tough enough – certainly not compared to their East Asian counterparts – and that a return to ‘traditional methods’ and ‘academic rigour’ is the solution.

Here’s the thing though: given that most of the Cabinet have never set foot in a British state school for longer than a photo op, it is highly unlikely that they have spent any length of time in an East Asian state school. While I don’t consider myself to be an expert, I do think my time spent teaching ESL in China, Korea and Vietnam has given me some insight into the impact these decisions are likely to have on teaching and learning in general, and on the teaching and learning of Modern Foreign Languages in particular. The following observations are based on my time in a Korean state school, but many of the principles apply equally to schools in China, Singapore, Thailand and many other East Asian countries.

Teaching to the Test: Turbo Version

For most students, the Su Neung (the standardized university entrance exam) will decide their future. At the age of 18, all students in the equivalent of Year 13 sit the same exam on the same day. On that day, the country stands still: planes are delayed and roads blocked so as not to disturb exam-takers, invigilators wear slippers, and it is not unheard of for students running late to get a police escort to the exam.  If you are a Korean student, the Su Neung marks the culmination of your school career and the finish line of a marathon for which you began competing against every other person in your age group in primary school. If you attend one of Seoul’s more elite schools, you know how you rank against every other student of the same age in the country. By High School, your timetable likely looked something like this:


(BTW, this is for kids in the equivalent of Years 11 and 12. By Year 13, it ran from 6am – 2am).

If the voracious studying doesn’t pay off and you don’t get into the university you hoped for, you might resit the Su Neung the next year. Other than that, it’s the end of the road. There’s no equivalent of adult education, so you can’t go back to college at 25 and do your Su Neung again in order to improve your prospects, and in any case even a year off the expected path is greeted with suspicion by employers, future parents-in-law and society at large. Whatever happens on that one day aged 18, it sets you – for better or worse – on a path for life.The top companies predictably only hire the top graduates of the top universities, and with prospective marriage partners depending on the university on your CV as well as your career, it’s hard not to feel like your whole life has been decided by one very high-stakes exam. For this reason, as well as family and social pressure to do well, if your school was like mine it might have had ‘safety bars’ on the windows, or windows that didn’t open past a certain point.

So what is this test actually like? Typically, it consists of a series of multiple-choice questions in a range of subjects including Maths, History, Sciences, Korean and Modern Foreign Languages. Students will prep for all of these by literally sitting in front of a Su Neung textbook with a ruler and memorising it word for word, line by line. You would think that this couldn’t work for Modern Foreign Languages – after all, how can you test the ability to communicate with a set of tick-box questions? The answer is simple: there is no test of spoken or written communication. At all. This in turn means that teaching focusses entirely on rote-learning vocabulary and grammatical structures, and on exam skills. All the UK teachers you hear getting irate about being forced to teach to the test, and it being the thin end of a wedge? This is the thick end.

Impact on Language Learning

Needless to say, this doesn’t lead to the most confident speakers, writers or in-context users of language. Conversely, my East Asian tutors have been universally appalled by what they saw as my stupidity and laziness (high points include the Chinese tutor who would hit the table and shout ‘NO!’ every time I mispronounced a tone – which was often – and my Korean tutor’s genuine mystification at my inability to learn 100 new words a day).

Meanwhile, I was merrily teaching away according to contemporary ESL methodology which is based on Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). CLT basically aims to make students talk to each other as much as possible: the vast majority of lessons consist of peer-peer communication in pairs or small groups. The teacher acts more as a facilitator, grouping students strategically then initiating and monitoring interactions between them and providing feedback. New grammar or vocabulary is introduced and drilled by the teacher, but thereafter students practice the language together in realistic contexts. Rather than the teacher simply correcting errors as they hear them, they are put on the board at the end of a stage or a lesson for students to mull over and correct together with discreet monitoring and guidance. Aside from upping the time students spend interacting in English, this is intended to reduce anxiety around making mistakes – it’s less stressful to be corrected by a peer during group work than by a teacher in front of the whole class.

I noticed, though, that even in groups with whom had a strong rapport, many students felt stressed by making the switch from their normal teaching style to the communicative method. This was partly because of a morbid fear of mistake-making and loss of face, and partly because there seemed little point wasting an hour learning how to do a Western-style debate when it contributed not a jot to the very high-stakes exam they had been preparing for since the age of 6.

And here’s the rub – there was plenty of good to be found in my Korean school, and in the generalised East Asian approach to teaching and learning, too. In fact, I’ll talk about it in my next post. But it was certainly not to be found in high-stakes assessment methods, or in the ‘toughness’ expected of the students. I fear that the current, much-oversimplified and un-nuanced representation of East Asian school life in the context of such changes to our own system will do our pupils more harm than good.

Lucy McCormick is the Owner and Head of Client Services at Struck Fluent, a community of tutors specialising in Modern Foreign Languages and ESL. She has extensive experience as a teacher and tutor of French and ESL in the UK, China, Korea, Vietnam and India. When not teaching or language geeking, you can generally find her in the company of a book, a gin or (preferably) both.

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