Thursday 2 August 2012

Is your child having difficulty learning the new language?

As you probably know I grew up bilingually in Africa. We spoke Dutch at home and we spoke English at school and where ever else we went to. I'm really happy that my parents made the effort to raise us in bilingually. You can read more about it in a post I wrote recently Bilingualism and growing up Abroad.

I have just finished reading the book called "Adios Holanda!"by Anita Schmidt. It's all about how she and her husband leave the Netherlands with their three daughters and move to Spain to start a new life there. The book is in Dutch by the way.

I am very interested in the effect of international moves on families and particularly the effect the move has on the children. I enjoy reading books on this topic.

Their eldest daughter Nienke (a real Dutch name) was 5 years old when the family moved to Spain. Here in the Netherlands she went to school, had her own friends, spoke Dutch fluently and had her own "afspraakjes" play dates. After moving she was immersed in the local Spanish school, they had Spanish neighbours and as a family they adjusted to the Spanish lifestyle. She was the only Dutch girl attending this local school at the time. So she was immersed in Spanish during the school day.

After a couple of weeks the mum discovered that Nienke did not say a word at school. She did not open her mouth. She was scared to make mistakes. She was scared that the other kids would make fun of her. It actually took 6 months before she started speaking at school. During this time Nienke also started to wet her bed during the night again. Now mum was really worried. 

Each child handles stress and change differently. This situation was not only stressful for the family but very stressful for Nienke too. She was experiencing language shock. It's when the stress gets in the way of the language learning. I came across this article: Is your child experiencing language shock? 5 things you should know about language shock.

6 Things to consider when your child is not speaking the new language:
  1. Do not condemn your child because they are not speaking the language yet.
  2. Try to be relaxed about the fact that your child is not yet speaking the new language.
  3. Talk to the teacher and ask advice.
  4. Realize that this new situation is very stressful for your child, give him or her some extra hugs and have more time together.
  5. Remember that in the end most children do pick up the new language, but it takes some time.
  6. Seek professional help if necessary.
Here's an article with 6 Ways to help your child succeed when they are struggling to learn the new language. It is written for children in the U.S. but it is useful.

What's your experience? Did your children have difficulty learning a new language? Do you have tips?

Related posts:


  1. Wow, sometimes we forget how hard this can all be for a small child. Thanks for this insightful post. We have not had to move countries, but my kids do attend an immersion school. I've often felt sad that we didn't get to experience culture immersion too, but this shows that it can be pretty tough, at least in the beginning.

  2. Thanks for your comment. An immersion school? That sounds interesting. What language do your kids learn at school? By the way how a child reacts to the move and learning the new language has everything to do with the age and personality of the child too. It can be a real challenge!

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this great post. We so take for granted that children can learn a language with ease and we completely forgot that the process of moving to a new language can be very disruptive to them. This is great advice and I am definitely going to share it with my readers.

  4. You're welcome to share the information, please do! Raising bilingual kids can be a lovely gift to give our kids, but it can be challenging for both the parents and kids. I think it is good that parents model the language learning, so they set the right example and learn the new language too. I'm learning Indonesian at the moment:). I try to have fun together with our daughter when she's learning English, her main language is Dutch.

  5. Another one of your great posts, thank you! I had a similar situation with my 3-year old when she was about 2. She spoke several words in Polish and German, but the nannies were worried about her Dutch. The nurse at the Consultatiebureau suggested sending her to pre-school (voorschool), and we decided against this.

    I then read about the "silent phase"- where children who speak more than one language speak their parents' mother tongue but are silent at daycare or kindergarden, because they need a strong base in their "mother tongues" before they can start talking in a new language. This was definitely the case with my girl. She is now talking more and more Dutch, and understands everything, while her Polish and German vocabulary increases.

    I think that most people think that it is somehow bad for children to move to another country, while most children are fine-although they probably need a period of transition.

    I also think that the way children deal with stress (also stress caused by moving to another country, and learning a new language) in their own ways- maybe some children are more sensitive and react more strongly to such a change? I never know if it's the move itself, or the children's sensibility that makes it hard for them?

  6. Thanks for sharing your story. Every situation, child, family etc is different and there can so many variables so each story is different. I'm glad your daughter is now speaking Dutch as well (as Polish and German). It's good to seek advice and to listen to your own intuition, what you feel is right for your own child. Some children are more sensitive and need a little more time (and extra attention?).

    1. Of course, my story is a totally different one- just like you say, every child is different, and what can be a huge problem to one child, is not so bad for another. And yes, advice is good only it has to come from someone who knows about multilingualism- and these people are hard to find. Intuition is another good point- it might help a lot! I loved this post, by the way and shared it on my Facebook wall. Raising multilingual children is not all flowers and unicorns...