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curious - do any bilingual children struggle with their languages?

(38 Posts)
nonicknameseemsavailable Fri 23-Jan-15 11:04:19

not sure how to phrase this so it makes sense.

you know how some people find languages easy, so you could be brought up speaking one language but you naturally find it easy to learn more languages and equally some people struggle and really can't learn another language.

I am curious if children who are being raise bilingual can also struggle. So some naturally just learn both and are fine but is it actually a kind of 'programming the brain' issue and some people genuinely CAN'T learn more than one language without problems and therefore could affect a child who is trying to learn both as native languages?

does that make sense? purely out of curiosity. I know a child who is being raised bilingual (now 6) and who struggles with both languages, I don't mean just reading and writing but more general confusion, she just struggles with both so it made me wonder if some of us are just wired up to only deal with one language.

noramum Fri 23-Jan-15 11:44:16

DD is 7.5 and bi-lingual, German and English. We are German parents and apart from the times we are in English speaking company we only speak German to her. We read German books, we have German DVDs, CDs and lots of holiday in Germany.

English is the outside language since she is 11 months and went to nursery. I would say English is her main language therefore. She speaks fairly fluent German but only if she needs to. She often mixes grammar but switches automaticall, there is not translation going on, she uses both languages automatically. She reads it, I would say a year behind her English. Her writing is not good but we do not practice a lot.

English - she is in Y3 and I would say bang in the middle, maybe a bit above average. Nobody, neither her nursery teacher nor any school teacher ever commented on her bilingualism. Sometimes she feels she is missing vocabulary as certain words we only use at home and therefore she may not know the English equivalent.

She loves to read and while there is a certain amount of "junk-reading" we try to see that she reads good quality writing to improve her English.

She mixes languages but only at home and we then ask her immediately to correct herself.

nonicknameseemsavailable Fri 23-Jan-15 11:58:34

thanks - see that is kind of how I imagined it to work and most of the bi or tri lingual children we know are like this, I think many are above average in English although like you say they may not know the direct translation for some vocab in one or the other language.

CoteDAzur Fri 23-Jan-15 12:04:54

"she just struggles with both so it made me wonder if some of us are just wired up to only deal with one language."

No such thing. Yes, multilingual children do mix their languages and have smaller vocabularies in each language than a child who only has one language (which would be interpreted as "struggling") but they steadily improve in each language.

It is also not true that "some people genuinely CAN'T learn more than one language". If they managed to learn one language they can learn another, given time, opportunity, and effort. Some of us are better than others in mimicking accent and intonation, so will always be better linguists, but it is patently untrue that there are others who can never learn to communicate in a language other than their own.

BertieBotts Fri 23-Jan-15 12:06:31

Yes I live abroad and through the expat community I know of children who have struggled massively learning the language.

We were lucky and DS picked it up without any bother at all.

However, the ones who were born here and had both languages from birth seem to have no problems - I haven't met a child who has been brought up with two languages to have an issue with either of them beyond normal speech development issues.

If they are spoken to in one language entirely until they go to school/nursery, then they can struggle. And children who have come from other places and suddenly been placed into the new language can struggle. (But equally children often do well in these situations, it's not a given that it's harder).

And yes - when children learn languages like this they don't translate at all. It's a completely different process to how adults and older children learn languages. More like picking up a native language, it's a communication tool. You pick up a few things little by little and then build on those.

DS can translate now but he needed a good knowledge of German before that was possible for him. We've been here 16 months.

BertieBotts Fri 23-Jan-15 12:08:53

Oh good point Cote, I think yes things can be misunderstood too. Of course a multilingual toddler will pick up language slower than a monolingual one, because they have twice or more the amount of language to acquire. But I'm not talking about that really.

TBH I think if you were put into a situation where you could only communicate with people in a new language, anybody would be able to pick it up eventually, at least enough to serve your purposes.

BertieBotts Fri 23-Jan-15 12:13:24

In a way we all speak multiple languages - you will automatically tend to change your accent and the vocabulary you use in different situations or depending on who you are speaking to. Of course that's not the same as a totally separate language but it's something we do without thinking. You wouldn't speak to a class of school children the way you'd speak to a close group of friends on a boozy night out, when we speak to someone and hear that they are new or hesistant in our language we tend to slow our speech right down, use more simple rather than flowery language and sometimes even mimic patterns that they use (such as saying "must" instead of "have to")

MagpieCursedTea Fri 23-Jan-15 12:17:51

I'm bilingual but I really struggled with French at school. I think it was probably the way it was taught. I spent time immersed in my first and second languages, where as French was just memorising words in a classroom setting. It didn't work for me.

Purpleflamingos Fri 23-Jan-15 12:18:06

Ds has 4 bi-lingual friends. One struggles in his other language as only dad speaks it so English is spoken mainly in the home when it's just them two. Another struggles with English and English equivalent words as mum can't speak English so only speaks English at school. No support at home for reading school books either.The other two are as fluent as 5yr olds can be in both languages.

Sarsparilla Fri 23-Jan-15 12:20:53

If a child has a language delay/language impairment then they will struggle with learning and developing language.

If they are monolingual, they will struggle with one language.

If they are bilingual they will struggle with both languages.

It's highly unlikely that they would have no problems with one but struggle with the other, just because "their brains could only cope with one". There isn't a finite amount of grammar or vocabulary that we are able to acquire.

My DD speaks two languages and she was slow to pick up the second - she could already speak English when she was first exposed to the second language. I think that was because of lack of exposure, shyness, poor confidence, a bit of lack of motivation to learn that she made slow progress at first.

Once she did eventually start to speak, she made progress quite quickly.
But I'm sure if she had been exposed to both equally, from birth, she would have started to speak both.

CeciCC Fri 23-Jan-15 12:30:59

Hi, I am catalan/Spanish. As such, I was raised with both languages... so did all my friends. Both language are spoke, learnt at school... but I didn't consider myself bilingual. I live now in the UK, DH is Scottish and we have 2 DDs. Main language at home is English, but my daughter understand perfectly catalan and Spanish, but make mistakes when talking. Oldest daughter, now 14, didn't start talking properly until she was 3. Youngest, now 10, she was talking quite fluently at age 2. I think learning 2 languages had nothing to do with my eldest "delayed" speech.

BertieBotts Fri 23-Jan-15 12:35:31

YY to "there is not a finite amount..."

Some languages are more complicated than others, so if we had a finite amount, babies born in countries with complex languages would be stuffed!

It does seem a very sudden tipping over the edge point, it was with DS too. At first he knew yes, no, please, thank you, hello, goodbye, colours and numbers. That was it (and a few related phrases e.g. good morning, see you tomorrow) for months and months. Then one day he started coming out with nouns - tree, car, dog, boy, girl, house, etc. The next stage in our experience was adjectives - a big car, a red house, a nice dog, alongside single verbs - I run, I eat, I sleep. When he got transitive verbs (I like [something], I know [something]) that was the sudden switch, the final piece of the puzzle and then it all poured out. He's not at the level of a German born child of course but he is fluent. He speaks at normal speed and mumbles and uses the local accent and all of the things adult language learners don't do. I would guess he speaks like a German three year old rather than the six year old he is, but I can't tell you exactly.

nonicknameseemsavailable Fri 23-Jan-15 12:46:59

perhaps it is some sort of language delay then. It would make sense that most of the language learning problems when older are down to how we learn the language but it is interesting how some people can do it so seamlessly but others just never really get to grips with it. I suppose I was thinking of it in the same way that some of us have mathmatical or scientific minds, others language or whatever so therefore I was wondering if this could affect children learning more than one language but I can see that if it is more 'absorbed as a communication method' rather than 'learned as a language' it can bypass whether you have a languagey mind or not.

UptheRhine Fri 23-Jan-15 12:54:08

I think it depends entirely on the level of input in each language. The challenge with bilingual - or multilingual - children is ensuring that they get enough input in the target languages. So a child living in Germany, in the German educational system, with two English speaking parents who speak English at home will make more or less equal progress in both languages - though it may be that certain vocabulary sets are better in one or the other language. It gets more challenging if the inputs are less balanced. So a child living in Germany, in the German educational system, with a German speaking mother and an English speaking father will find their English does not develop at the same rate and the family will need to make a special effort to arrange holidays in UK/visits from cousins etc if they want it to.
I know of some families where the children juggle four languages: Mum Greek, Dad Spanish, living in Germany but in English language education. The language of education and the language of the country of residence then tend to dominate as that is where the most inputs are. More than four and you risk your child not having real fluency in any language.

tigrou Fri 23-Jan-15 12:57:21

When you are raised bilingual from birth, you learn both language naturally, which is very different from learning them in a classroom setting. In general, people who struggle to learn languages at school or later in life always learned to speak one language naturally as children. If they'd had exposure to more languages in this way, they would probably have become bi-/multi-lingual without any problems.

noramum Fri 23-Jan-15 13:03:57

I agree, a genuine language delay can make both languages difficult or just the one for a monolingual child. Also, my bi-lingual one chatted around while my mono-linugal friend's DD grunted and pointed. Delays don't have anything to do with being bi-lingual. It then becomes important to have a therapist with experience in this subject as there is a lot of prejustice.

The point when speaking one language at home and the other is the outside one is to make sure you get your child involved in the outside one as soon as possible. Nothing is worse than starting pre-school or school and having not enough knowledge. The set-backs are difficult to overcome.

Also, homework in our house is done in English, we may talk about a subject in general in German but last week we had geometry and DH explained everything in English.

Ellle Fri 23-Jan-15 15:18:36

I agree with previous posters.

As Sarsparilla said, a delay/language impairment in a child will affect their language acquisition whether the child is monolingual or bilingual. In those cases, for the child struggling with languages the bilingualism is a red herring.

Of course, there are also other factors involved (how much exposure does he get in any of the languages, what kind of exposure, also the personality of the child, etc). But in general, the bilingual children I have met are usually competent in at least one of the languages, with various degrees of competency in the second ranging from equally competent to only passive understanding.

With my first son, we tried to increase the exposure to the minority language as much as we could, and only spoke to him in that language at home. He was exposed to English since 8 months old at nursery, but it took him a while to pick it up as he only went there 2 days a week. His minority language was always better.

When he entered school, it was still the case. He had far more advance vocabulary in the minority language, and could read and write it. But in a few months he picked English up to the same level as his monolingual peers. And he can now read and write in English to a level above average.
He never mixed the languages. And even when he writes his spelling is impecable in either language.

The initial lack of exposure to English didn't prevent him from learning it eventually at school. If anything, what I saw was that a secure knowledge in his native language allow him to acquire a second more easily, transfering some of the skills he was already competent in the first language.

nonicknameseemsavailable Fri 23-Jan-15 19:06:56

thank you - I have found that all really interesting. I wish I had been brought up speaking more than one language or was in a position to do this with my children.

viviennejane Fri 23-Jan-15 21:21:21

All three DC are fluent in Hebrew, English and French. I am half French and my DH is Israeli.

DS1 is average at languages, took a French and Hebrew GCSE in Year 7. Grasped German fairly well but dropped it at GCSE level.

DS2 loves languages and like DS2 took French and Hebrew GCSE in Year 7. Took Mandarin at GCSE level and got an A*. Did take him a lot of hard work though as those languages are very different.

DD is going to take Hebrew and French next year. I'm not sure whether she's very good at languages. She is interested in Latin already but not sure if that is an option at the school she is hoping to go to.

I can't say whether they are good at languages or okay at languages, but certainly not bad. If you have grasped more than one language, it is easier to understand other language structures etc... that's what I heard anyway.....

GettingFiggyWithIt Fri 23-Jan-15 21:40:04

I am sure at teacher training we were told about a natural language acquisition device we all have up to age of five. That said my kid was five when we emigrated. English as mother tongue so oral/aural/reading 100%
Immersed daily at school in second language and can 'pass' oral/aural vgd but
a) her written English needs a lot of work
b) her second language whilst very good will always have a vocab/finer detail deficit

Her third language starting at secondary is a bloody nightmare...she cannot do French to save her life as it is proper learn off by heart rote learning at eleven and she has been used to coasting with being a native English speaker so has not learnt how to learn vocab lists (copy cover spell check)

She is going to dump French asap and try Spanish insteadconfused

MissWimpyDimple Fri 23-Jan-15 23:01:19

I was raised bi lingual and I do find it easier than some others to pick up languages. Specially those related to my "foreign" language.

Ie: I speak German and English (German parents but was always a 2nd language really), picked up Swedish and Dutch quite easily.

foursquare Sat 24-Jan-15 13:13:12

My DD is also bilingual and English is not her 'mother tongue'. She's 6 1/2 now and sometimes she's pausing a bit before speaking, like she's looking for words in her mind - but that's only in my presence - because I don't speak English with her when it's just the two of us.

At school she's in top sets for reading and writing (reading band ORT stage 12/13) even though she's summer-born. Her English vocabulary is very good, but that's because she reads a lot at home. She can only read and write in English, but I'm planning on teaching her at home how to read and write in her mother tongue.

I think the key is for kids to read a lot, that's how they develop a good vocabulary in any language. And keep speaking both languages, so that they don't forget the one that might not be used that often.

foursquare Sat 24-Jan-15 13:14:27

PS. She does French now at school, and she loves it! It helps that I can speak a bit of French too, so I can support her at home.

nonicknameseemsavailable Sat 24-Jan-15 21:03:36

gosh some very linguistic (is that the right term?) children around.

I think it is amazing how well they can obviously learn more than one language if they are young enough and immersed in it completely.

noramum Sun 25-Jan-15 10:32:20

They do not learn a language in any different way than a monolingual child. It is not that we sit with them and work, we talk to them from birth, we make sure they hear it from as many different sources as possible.nit is their second mother tongue, not an artificial language.

Yes, reading and writing will obviously be structured but not differently from learning English.

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