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Bilingual children: Parents' anguish

A life in a country other than one's country of origin has multiple challenges. One of the challenges of life in the Netherlands is the language. The Dutch themselves are the first to say that the language is not easy. The fact that English is a widely known and spoken language in the Netherlands, making life much easier for those living there, those coming from abroad are faced with a (at the very least) bilingual life.

Many expatriates accept this reality very well, although they experience many worries, doubts and anxiety when faced with the need for child bilingualism. Considering the most common questions of parents, in this article we will clarify some common doubts about bilingual child development.

Being bilingual means being able to speak more than one language. Learning two languages can take two forms: a) simultaneously, when the child is immersed in a bilingual context from birth and learns both languages simultaneously, for example when both parents have different nationalities; b) sequentially, when the child learns the second language after the first language (mother tongue) is well established, as we observe when the child is an expatriate.

The situations that may lead a child to develop bilingualism may be different. For expatriates, the most common cases are: being from an intercultural family and living with more than one language at home; or the immigration of the family to a country with a different language from the mother tongue.

Are there benefits of being bilingual?

Scientific research is unanimous in proving that there are benefits to mastering more than one language, namely: development of cognitive skills (understanding ideas and how to apply them), complex problem solving, attention, memory and creative thinking.

What can we expect from a child when exposed to more than one language?

Let's consider a common situation: a child, fluent in Portuguese, moves with his family to the Netherlands when he is 4 years old and starts attending a Dutch school right away. It is possible that:

  1. the child becomes quieter and uses more gestures to communicate, while learning and developing the second language that is totally unknown to him/her. Emotionally, the child may feel frustrated at not being able to express what he/she thinks and feels with the fluency he/she is used to;

  2. after the initial phase, the child starts mixing the two languages or has difficulty pronouncing Dutch. If the child has not yet had specific support for the development of the new language, now is the right time to provide it. Another important aspect is to understand how the child relates emotionally to the second language, how he reacts to confusions and mistakes when trying to speak, read and express himself in the new language. Gradually, this process will be overcome and the child will continue to learn and develop skills and become fluent;

  3. the child remains fluent in the mother tongue as long as he/she continues to be exposed to this language. This exposure can facilitate communication with relatives, as well as establishing a connection with the culture of the country of origin. If the child is not exposed to the first language, this may interfere with the child's mastery and use of the mother tongue.

Does bilingualism cause a delay in language development?

Research shows that being bilingual does not cause a delay in language development. What does sometimes happen is that by learning two languages at the same time, from early childhood, a child may start speaking later and have a smaller vocabulary in each language. Still, language skills are developed in the same patterns and timings as the child who speaks only one language.

What can mothers and fathers do ?

From the very beginning, parents can seek information about bilingualism, speech development and give the child the opportunity to get support appropriate to his/her level of development. The more natural and adjusted the contact with languages is, the more favourable it will be for the child.

Another important aspect is to realise that if there are previous difficulties identified in language acquisition, it will be necessary to rethink exposure to more than one language. These difficulties may interfere with simultaneous learning of the two languages, leading to language and speech difficulties.

Finally, and equally important, parents (carers in general) need to understand their emotions during this process. Carers' expectations interfere with the child's learning process and this will be no different in the case of the acquisition of two or more languages.

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