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bilingual - knowing no language well?

(8 Posts)
olguis Sun 09-Oct-11 21:01:06

Every half year I get this scare. It usually happens as I read to my son in English - his and mine second language and realise what a little vocabulary he has. Today, it turned out he doesn't know the word 'ordinary'. He is nearly 7, has lived in UK since he was 3,5.

At home, we speak our mother tongue, language #1; I go a long way to help him keep it up. He goes to Saturday language school in #1; he reads, writes and speaks so that native speakers in country #1 do not recognise he doesn't live there (when we visit). Still, it is going to deteriorate, his vocabulary isn't catching up and I accept he will not be an absolutely full master of that language.

However, his English is in a far worse situation. He is quite a poor reader, his spelling is bad. I recently started also supporting his English as it was going nowhere - still very, very limited command (in my view). And he has been in this country half of his little life! Also, there is not enough time in the day to do the same amount of work in two languages - on top of his English school!

So, I am asking really for some support and any advice. Of course, I start wondering if he stands any chance passing verbal reasoning at 11+ in English, judging from where he is now... And whether his #1 is deteriorating while his #2 is not advancing... He is lost in between, lacking means to really have a full rich complex language - at least one. And rather has a little of both. Is it going to do him a favour at all?

olguis Sun 09-Oct-11 21:04:53

and of course I worry that maybe he is just not too bright in languages? He still has an accent, he is still very much 'english as a second language', while everyone was always saying: don't worry about English, worry about mothertongue. Would be strange to grow in England and have a foreign accent??

cory Tue 11-Oct-11 09:15:27

I worried a lot more until I started listening to my monolingual nephews and realised that I had totally exaggerated ideas of what level of perfection can be expected of a monolingual child. It was only after I started listening that I realised that many of ds' "mis-pronuncation" was, in fact, normal child language, not poor Swedish, that his grammatical mistakes were age appropriate and that his vocabulary could easily be expanded. I was judging him by my adult standards because I was the only Swedish speaker around: my Swedish brothers compared their children to the other kids who came round to play and had far more realistic ideas.

In your case I would think about the following:

1) Why are you so convinced that your ds will not reach full mastery of his minority language? (and what is full mastery anyway: speaking like the most educated person of that country, or like somebody more ordinary?).

Will he not want to go on accessing more difficult books and getting to know more people from his first culture? My dd's Swedish took off enormously in her pre-teens because that was when she got more contact with people her own age. Can he not go and stay there when he is older?

2) What support is he getting with English at school? Do the teachers realise he is struggling?

You say his spelling is bad- is it abnormally bad for his age? (English is a difficult language to write and ime spelling is often bad in the early years even amonst monolinguals; I found coming from abroad I had to lower my expectations of dcs' achievements in the early years). How does he cope playing with other children?

3) Has anyone suggested there may be a particular reason he is struggling? Is his hearing good, does he see well, could he be dyslexic?

I would start with a chat with his teacher. Don't expect her to know about bilingualism or have anything useful to say about that, but she has observed your son together with other children so will know if he has any particular problems.

UptoapointLordCopper Tue 11-Oct-11 14:13:02

I get worried about DSs' accent in the minority language. Someone once commented on it and I must say I jumped on her and told her that if I don't comment on her English accent perhaps she should have the courtesy not to comment on my DSs' accent. blush blush I'm aware that is not a healthy attitude ... but I still worry ..

olguis Tue 11-Oct-11 22:49:30

thanks for responding, and in such detail!

re: cory
You are probably right, and I expect too much of his language(s).

1) I think his mother tongue won't be super well developed after all because he doesn't exhibit too much love for reading, and that's I think how real complexity of the language can be developed. I don't know if he'll read enough in two languages. It's too early to say, though, and I might be wrong. I'd be glad to be wrong smile

2) In view of his teachers, he is not struggling. This is only my view. I now suspect his school is not the best - it just took me quite long to understand the local system. In his school, he is ok, he is in the middle, he is not behind. But a middle there is rather behind - both in my opinion (coming from abroad) and compared to very good primaries...
His writing, spelling is average, etc. It's all about what they call average, right?

3) He is not really struggling, in his teachers' view. It's only my view, and he would say things like: I am not very good in English, I can't write this or that, or read fluently like the best pupils in class. He is not dyslexic, and healthy. He is quite bright, but he doesn't excell to the best of his ability. I thought it might be because of his language.

As of today, I start thinking it's because of the school.. Maybe they don't support those kinds of children well. His best friend - English second language too - has same problems (just spoke to her mum).

UptoapointLordCopper Wed 12-Oct-11 07:59:08

olguis - where are you from? Where I come from a 7yo would know A LOT more facts than my 7yo here. Having come from that system myself I also see the short-coming of its cramming style, but have to consciously remind myself now and then not to panic - some things are so ingrained that even when you disagree you still subconsciously hold it up as some sort of standard. There are different paths and different goals. I find myself trying to gauge the good and the bad of the systems and trying to compensate at home what is not done in school, and trying to reassess aims and goals all the time.

Actually it is quite exhausting, which is probably while I shouted for two minutes solid at a cold caller who said I couldn't possibly be busy. angry blush

Bonsoir Wed 12-Oct-11 08:07:15

You sound as if you are doing the right things but you really need to make sure your DS is reading several books a week in each of his two languages.

cory Wed 12-Oct-11 08:21:33

more thoughts:


1) It is early days yet and a love of reading may yet come. And if it doesn't you may be able to think of other ways of developing his language, e.g. spending time in the other country etc.

My ds (11) is the most reluctant reader I have ever met, but his spoken Swedish is very good indeed. He gets complexity of language from visiting Sweden, from being read to by me and from discussing things- politics, films, events of the day- with me.

2+3) It sounds as if you are a little ready to ascribe any lack of great success to his bilingualism. Maybe he is simply average because that is what he is? After all, somebody has to.

I have two children, one who is g&t and predicted very high results in her exams, one who has always been very average. Bilingualism isn't the problem for either of them as far as I can tell- they are simply very different people with very different talents. I do what I can to support and stimulate them both, but tbh I do not think ds is ever going to turn into dd, and I don't think that is anybody's fault or a failure on anybody's part.

point 4) Your ds is only 6- I think it would be very difficult to predict what his writing will be like in 5 years time. Dd's took off suddenly at junior school. You may find there is a sudden spurt in a year or two.

Not saying you shouldn't concern yourself about it, but it does sound like you are doing a lot of the right things, there are only so many hours in the day and he is still little.

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