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Nov 192015
 

Question

Hello,

I recently found your blog while searching for information about multilingual children. Here’s my story in short: I’m a Romanian married to a Belgian man. Our two kids were born in Romania, where my man lived 12 years. As he learned Romanian himself and never thought he would move back to Belgium, he decided not to speak Dutch to any of them. But as they say, never say never!

We eventually moved to Belgium in 2012, when my daughter was 10 and my son was 2.5 years old. For my daughter there was no problem at all, but the reason I’m writing is my son. When we moved here, his mother language was just setting in place, or let’s say he wasn’t speaking much. I have to say my husband and I have always spoken English to each other.

The moment we moved to Belgium was also the moment my husband started to speak Dutch to our son. And for the first time in his life he started school (kindergarten called here). It was a very difficult year, he was behind everyone in his class. He didn’t understand much, so the teachers suggested he would repeat the first year – which he did. After three years here, I must say he’s still behind all of them. He can’t speak correctly any of the two languages.

I must mention, though we never spoke English to him, he understand most of what we say – and needs to ask more when he hears something interesting. As you know, Romanian and Dutch are two very different languages, with different grammatical structures, so he mostly switch the words in the sentence – which makes it sound strange for the one who listens, not to mention he can use both languages in one sentence.

Above all these, he is struggling with counting, with memorizing abstract words – such as days of the weeks, and numbers. He’s seeing a speech therapist, outside school, since one year now. And she said she thinks there’s a memory issue when it comes to the languages. I’m a bit worried, as I don’t know if his delay had to do with all these three languages or if there’s more to it.

Thanks for reading my message. I could use some advice or at least an opinion.

Have a nice day!
Aurelia

Answer

Dear Aurelia,

Thank you for your question and for getting in touch.

If I am correct, your son will be turning six soon. By your description, your son can understand both Romanian and Dutch and most of what you speak in English – so he is well on his way to becoming trilingual. As you do not speak English to him directly, it is natural that he will not speak English himself – he has a receptive knowledge of the language, which he has picked up by listening to you and his father.

Mixing languages at his age is still normal and I would not worry too much about this aspect as such. He is already seeing a speech therapist, so this is great – do you feel he has made improvements since he started his visits? You say that the therapist thinks your son may have a “memory issue when it comes to languages” – has she expanded on this at all? Please do ask her to explain in more detail so you understand exactly what she is referring to and whether she thinks any further investigations are called for. Not saying that there is, but if the therapist thinks there might be an underlying Specific Language Impairment (SLI), then ask for an assessment designed for bilingual children. The important thing to remember about SLI in general is that bilingualism is not the cause of it.

You mention that he was behind everyone in class when he first started school – what is your feeling, do you think this was only due to the language and because he did not understand the instructions? You also write that after three years, you think he is still behind others – have the teachers mentioned this to you? If you are concerned about his general development, I suggest that you discuss this with your family doctor to get peace of mind. Your doctor will be able to decide whether to refer you to a specialist in child development.

I can feel your worry, and the best way to tackle it, is to speak to the professionals who can help you understand the situation and by asking them specific questions about your son’s language and overall development. Be persistent in getting the information you need and do not accept an answer along the lines of “It’s nothing to worry about” unless the comment is followed up by an explanation why you can stop being concerned. As a parent, you have the right to fully understand the situation.

I hope this has helped you a bit – please do let me know how it goes.

Kind regards
Rita

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