Category Archives: Multilingualism

When a bilingual child turns quiet

Bildschirmfoto 2013-02-27 um 15.19.03

This is an extended version of an answer I gave to parents who asked me for advice about their 7 yo boy turning silent.

One or the biggest myths about bilingual children is that they are all like sponges and that they become fluent in no time…

Fact is, that during language aquisition, children go through different stages: Pre-production, Early Production, Speech Emergent, Beginning Fluency, Intermediate Fluency, Advanced Fluency.

When a child turns silent there is usually some reason. It can be one that seems minor to parents but is major for the child. – Maybe your child went through a major change during the last few months? Or anything else happened like:  you moved country, or your child is attending daycare or school in another language? What is important for any parent, teacher, speechtherapist etc. needs to know if the child stoped talking both (or all) languages at the same time, and what could have triggerd this reaction.

Studies observe that the nonverbal period is typically

1) shorter than 6 months,

2) common in 3-8 year olds and

3) longer in the younger child

(cfr. Tabors PO. One Child, Two Languages: A Guide for Preschool Educators of Children Learning English as a Second Language. Baltimore: Brookes; 1997.)

During this time a child needs time to acclimatise to the new context and to begin to tune into the sounds of all languages involved. He may start rehearsing the language(s) silently to himself and practice “private speech”. You would notice this when he plays by himself and lets toys talk. – He is probably processing the language internally and building up confidence to try out the language before “going public” again.

What you, your partner and everyone interacting with the child can do, is to reassure and encourage him by making him feel accepted member of the group/family/society.
I know that the pressure from society, family, friends, teachers (?) can be very hard on you and your child, but I really suggest that you entirely focus on his needs now. Let your child decide when he wants to interact with you.

Here are some suggestions about what you can do:

1. Continue talking even when your child does not respond verbally.
2. Try to include you child in small groups (1-2) with other children who speak the same language.
3. Use varied questions, especially open questions, where your child can’t only nodd or shake his head.
4. Include other children as the focus in the conversation.
5. Use the first language.
6. Accept non-verbal responses.
7. Praise minimal efforts, but not in an exaggerated way. If he says something or tries to say something, you can praise with a smile or by repeating what he said. This will comfort him.
8. You can try to sing more songs with him. Through music, rythm, the body can relax and if he may try to sing the tune too.
9. The practice through role play can be beneficial. too: let him choose a puppet or a toy and try to let him talk through it.

If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

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Third generation of international children

Are you raising your children abroad? Are you trying (almost) everything to transmit your cultural heritage and your mothertongue?

When our children are second – or third, fourth etc – generation of international children, transmitting cultural heritage and language becomes a real challenge.

If your child is first international generation, i.e. you grew up in your home country

At the beginning you’ll think that talking more than the famous 20% of waking hours in your family language with your child will make him or her become a “perfectly balanced bilingual”. During the first years you will try to do your best to support your child’s bilingualism. You’ll organise playgroups, provide all sorts of books, audiobooks, videos etc. to make this language as interesting as possible.

When your child starts going to a school, you’ll opt either for a school in your family language (if this is possible) or a school where lessons are taught in another language, either the local one or a third one.

If your child attends school in your family language, he will hear and interact in your family language every day, but he will “only” learn vocabulary in the situations he experiences at school, i.e. during school hours and at recess. No slang will be learnt (unless other children at school know it and use it) because most of the schools wouldn’t allow the use of slang. This may not present any problem for the first school years, but when children realize that they don’t understand peers in their home countries or the countries their family language is spoken, they will feel excluded, alienated, not belonging.

Your child will grow up in a linguistic bubble. He won’t learn how to “live in that language” in every day situations and he’ll automatically build a selective vocabulary.

If you send your child to a school in another language, this other language will become more important than the family language as soon as your child makes the first friends in school. He will try to fit in, talk like his peers and therefore automatically consider the family language as less important, less “cool” and less interesting.

At this point you’ll realize that you need to make your family language more attractive. You try to link the language use to interesting topics and make it exciting for your child. You’ll notice that if your child has classmates who also talk the same family language as you do at home, and you invite those childern for a playdate, they will prefer the school language while playing together. You’ll try to intervene and set strict rules, which may work for a few years, but at some point, once you’re not in the same room, they’ll switch to the language they prefer. – You may or may not be ok with it, but that’s what happens naturally.

What can you do to make and keep the family language attractive? You’ll try to spend as much time as possible – usually almost all holidays! – in the country the language is spoken. Maybe with family, i.e cousins, occasional friends etc. And you’ll observe that after a few days or weeks your children will improve their language skills. They’ll learn the jargon, use the language in many different contexts you can’t usually provide at home. They experience full immersion and will literally dig into the other language and culture.

If you want to make sure that your child learns to interact in your family language in as many contexts as possible, you will need to provide opportunities for your child to use your language in diverse situations: in a shop, at the supermarket, in a train/bus/tram/plane, at a museum, cinema, with people on the street, at the beach… You will try to make your child experience a variety of “real life” situations, hoping that he learns that the same word can have multiple meanings depending on the contexts.

This will help your child increase his or her vocabulary, become more confident and competent.

Children need interactions with peers who speak the same language – preferably with monolinguals – in order to be more motivated.

Bildschirmfoto 2012-10-08 um 12.51.25

If your child is second (or third) international generation, i.e. you grew up abroad already

If you already grew up using your family language in a restricted context (i.e. only at home or at home and at school) and you raise your children in the same family language, you will notice that you’ll make more effort than other parents who grew up in their home country, to support your child become fluent in your mother-(or father-) tongue. You will know about the benefits of using more than one language on a regular basis and being “perfectly fluent” in one language doesn’t seem so important anymore.

I realize this every time I talk with my German friends who seem not having any of the issues with their children like the one I have with mine to make them talk German at home. It may be because my children know that I speak several languages and they love talking other languages with me too, but we never talk one and only one language in our family.

My children speak a second-generation-German. They always try to blend in when on holidays in Germany and fortunately they have no language barriers. They are very outgoing and make friends easily. They read German books, know German songs and can converse in German, but I notice a big difference between them and German children whose parents grew up in Germany. They are not as confident talking German as these children. – Does this bother me? Not really. Why? Because my linguistic goal is for them to be able to speak, read and write German in an eloquent way, but it doesn’t need to be perfect.

When you raise your child in your mothertongue and you already grew up abroad, you will probably be a bilingual or multilingual. You will be aware that every situation where your child can talk your language and feel special and even proud to use that language is very valuable. You know that in order to keep them talking that language, they need to be praised for their effort. Why? Because if they talk that language they choose to do it. They don’t always need to choose that language because they share other languages with the people they normally talk to. So, whenever they have the opportunty to talk your family language, they need to be supported. I know by my own experience that if you get told that the language to talk sounds “funny” or strange, this can affect you so much that you avoid talking it – especially if this “someone” is a grown up, a teacher or someone you admire and you already feel that this language is difficult for some reason.

We all know that maintaining our mothertongue not only serves to transmit our heritage to our children and to build a bridge to our (extended) family, but also to build their confidence and help them find their identity. If their efforts are not acknowledged, they can easily feel frustrated and excluded. Therefore our second or third generation international children need all the support they can get from co-nationals to maintain their heritage language.

Related articles: What happens to second generation international children.

Bilingualism: Language acquisition and language learning

Linguists distinguish between language acquisition and language learning. Children acquire language through a subconscious process during which they are unaware of grammatical rules. This happens especially when they acquire their first language. They repeat what is said to them and get a feel for what is and what is not correct. In order to acquire a language, they need a source of natural communication, which is usually the mother, the father, or the caregiver.

Language learning, on the other hand, is the result of direct instruction in the rules of language. Language learning is not an age-appropriate activity for young children as learning presupposes that learners have a conscious knowledge of the new language and can talk about that knowledge. They usually have a basic knowledge of the grammar.

From a neurolinguistic point of view, language acquisition and language learning are processed in two different ways in the brain. During early infancy, language processing – during acquisition – occurs in many areas of the brain. Only over time it gradually becomes concentrated into two areas: the Broca’s area, which is situated in the left frontal cortex and is involved in the production of the patterns in vocal and sign language, and the Wernicke’s area, in the left temporal cortex that is primarily involved in language comprehension. The Broca’s area is the one actively involved in language acquisition processes, whereas the Wernicke’s area is active in the language learning process.

English: Basic sketch of brain areas involved ...

English: Basic sketch of brain areas involved in language. Author: Reid Offringa creation date: 1/9/06 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Acquisition:

  • unconscious process
  • does not presuppose teaching
  • the child controls the pace

Learning:

  • intentional process
  • presupposes teaching
  • the teacher controls the pace

Bilingual teens and young adults (#IMLD 2015)

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We can find many suggestions about how to support our children to become bilinguals* when they are toddlers, in preschool or primary school. But what happens when they are teenagers and young adults? Can we still support them with their family languages or other languages they’re learning along the way?

If culture was a house,

then language was the key to the front door,

to all the rooms inside

(Khaled Housseini)

Being bilingual and a teenager can be challenging, for both parents and children. Adolescence is a very intense period of physical and mental change, and all seems to revolve around finding an identity and fitting in with a group of friends.

How do teenagers juggle speaking two (or more) languages and belonging to two nationalities or cultures?

In my personal experience, talking two or more languages is not a problem per se during those years. Discovering literature in all the other languages I learned during my childhood and being able to really immerse into the cultures and the mindset of these cultures during holidays was (and still is!) very fascinating and enriching.

If we want our teenagers to stay  bilingual,

they need to know about the cultures

(U.E.L.)

What I found more challenging was the expectation locals would have. People would expect me to know what peers in that other culture and country would rave about.

My parents made sure that we would visit Germany once or twice per year for an extended period. They wanted to make sure that we could meet peers. Even if only for a few days we had the great opportunity to get to know the culture through peers’ eyes.

I recall that despite very easy beginnings – after all, we all spoke the same language! – we would soon discover that we have different expectations. Locals would expect us to understand their slang, jokes and to know what they were talking about (TV shows, what is “in” etc.).

I quickly realised that I didn’t share the same taste in food, music, literature. I wouldn’t know about the latest movies, spots, sport idols. I wouldn’t know the newest gossips and soon feel alienated and “different”. Knowing that I didn’t have to stay for a long time, made me yet enjoy those moments and appreciate the short but intense friendships.

Nowadays, thanks to internet etc., being in touch with cultures around the world is much easier. – We can all access informations in no time and get a virtual impression of the “other” culture.

Today, I encourage my children to watch news from the different countries we want them to be more familiar with. They know about the idols, they understand the (most of the) jokes and, up to now, do not feel alienated when they spend some days with peers in Germany or Switzerland twice per year. Even if my children are not teenagers yet, I know that peer pressure is very high and being the one who talks German (and Italian) to them, who explains the other culture to them is not going to suffice.

 

 

Some tips for parents who want to support their teens bilingualism and biculturalism:

  • bear in mind that teenagers rate peers higher than parents!
  • foster social networking: chatting via webcams is a great way to keep the other language alive. It is a great alternative to Saturday schools or parents teaching these languages at home!
  • be open minded when it comes to slang (and swearwords!). While growing up abroad, bilinguals will use the language in an “artificial context”. Allowing your child to use the slang their monolingual peers use, will help them fit in easier once you visit the country.
  • help them find resources to have access to the local slang.
  • make sure they know about the habits and values of peers in the other culture.
  • travel as often as you can to different places of your family languages and offer them opportunities to meet peers (by enrolling them in some local activities they like).
  • if you can’t travel that often and provide full language immersion, look out to other families that speak the same language where you live.
  • find panpals for your children – using social media may also be an option, but if you would like your children to improve their written skills in the other language(s), writing in the “old fashioned way” is advisable.

I wrote this post for our International Mother Language Day Campain on Facebook (cfr. #IMLD), where we published links about several topics related to raising the awareness of “mother (and father) languages” since January the 21rst.

 

(* I use the term of bilingual also for multilinguals.)