How to help a school-aged child with grammar?



Dear Family Language Coaches,

We are a bilingual family living in Germany near the Dutch border. I speak my native German with the kids and my husband his mother tongue Dutch. Our two eldest kids both went to German kindergarten until they were four and are now attending primary school in the Netherlands. Dutch is the majority language at home because the kids use it with each other and most of our and the kids’ friends are Dutch.

While our first-born daughter has picked up both languages smoothly, without any problems in any area, our now 7-year-old middle son is struggling with German grammar, more precisely with the articles. He will, for instance, say “Ich war in DIE Schule” where it should be “Ich war in DER Schule” in this case – although the general article for “Schule” is “DIE”. So he always sticks to the general article (which he usually remembers correctly) and fails to adapt it to the specific case he’s using it in.

He has been doing this from the beginning and we have thought for a long time that he would pick it up by himself in due time just by hearing the correct forms, but we are beginning to get worried. After years of (sometimes) repeating his sentences correctly for him I have recently started asking him to repeat the correct form after I said it. I have been doing this for several months now without any success. He just seems to be uninterested in the details of language as long as the general meaning has come across.

In the same vein his pronunciation is “lazy” with the difficult bits and pieces of words sometimes just left out or muttered and he uses much more code-switching than his sister instead of trying to find the right German words. He also, inconsistently, uses the wrong past tense forms of verbs although when asked for the correct form he can name it.

Do you think that his problems are still within the normal range for his age or would you recommend intervention in the form of formal teaching or SLT? Or do you think it might be a motivational issue?

Thank you very much,


Dear Jennifer,

Thank you for your question. To summarise, your family needs two languages: German and Dutch. You speak your mother tongue (German) with your children and your husband speaks his mother tongue (Dutch) with them. Your two eldest children went to German kindergarten until age four and now go to primary school in the Netherlands. I am assuming it is Dutch only in their current school. They are simultaneous bilingual children exposed to both languages from birth. They speak Dutch to each other at home and with their friends. At the moment, how much of his exposure and use is to German would you say? Could it be that Dutch has become his dominant language?

You are concerned about your 7-year-old’s grammar in German – specifically articles. (Although you also mention some issues with using the past tense form although he can identify the correct form.) He has been using the general article since the beginning rather than adapting the article to match the grammar of the sentence. My question is: what is his pronunciation like? You mention that he leaves out parts of words. Articles are not just about grammar; they can also be about speech depending on the languages involved. The word der requires an ‘r’ at the end. Can he produce this sound in other words? If he has trouble with the ‘r’, that could be the issue. In his head, the representation of the words die and der might be correct. But his articulation of the ‘r’ may make the der sound like die when he says it. A speech assessment is worth considering. Other related questions would be: has he had any history of hearing impairment? And is there anyone else in the family who has had speech and language issues?

It is also important to remember that children are not lazy when it comes to their speech and language development. They are getting on with communicating and from the child’s perspective, making their general meaning come across is what is important to them. They aree not aware or interested in the accuracy of their grammar. They want their message to be understood. I would suggest stopping correcting his grammar as it is not having an impact on the issue from what you say. And it can be a source of stress in your relationship if you feel frustrated over the lack of change.

I invite you to consider the perspective that code-switching is a communicative resource that children use in order to bridge gaps in their vocabulary. Their vocabularies are naturally uneven due to the differences in the input and exposure they receive and due to the opportunities to use the languages. In fact, children use their languages to talk with different people (parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, teachers) for different reasons (telling news, telling jokes, explaining how to play a game, answering a question) in different places (home, on the phone, on summer holidays, at school, at football, playing with neighbours). These three aspects of multilingual language development affect how their vocabulary unfolds. Going back to communication as the goal, your little boy is being quite resourceful in getting his message across and he most likely only code-switches when he knows the other person is bilingual for German and Dutch too. I believe that comparison is the thief of joy so it may not be helpful to compare his speech, language, and communication with his sister’s.

Other questions to consider are:

Do the issues you describe interfere with his everyday functioning at home, in school, with friends? The area of specific language impairment (SLI), or developmental language disorder (DLD) as it is now called, is a complex one. Children who have this diagnosis do struggle with grammar (both understanding the purpose of verb inflections and using them for example). It can manifest differently in different children depending on the features of the languages that they are acquiring. The consensus is that speaking two or more languages does not cause speech and language problems. The languages do interact with each other. If I understand it correctly, Dutch has de and het as definite articles so there could be some cross-linguistic transfer happening. What about verb endings in each of the languages?

A recent attempt to reach agreement on terminology describes the issue as one where the problems endure into middle childhood (age 6-12) with a significant impact on everyday social interactions or educational progress. So, how is he doing at school in terms of reading and writing for example?

On balance, I think seeing an SLT who knows about the sound systems, grammars and development in both languages is a good idea. In the meantime, if you want to boost German consider things like reading together in German, watching movies together in German and so on.

Please feel free to add further comments and questions below.

Kind regards,

Mary-Pat O'Malley-Keighran

Mary-Pat O'Malley-KeighranMary-Pat is a lecturer, author, researcher, speech and language therapist and lover of all things to do with speech, language and communication. She has over 20 years’ experience of working with families and 14 years’ experience of teaching in university. Mary-Pat has done extensive research in communication: parents’ experiences of speech and language therapy, story-telling in bilingual children, how newspapers tell stories about adults with communication problems, how midwives and pregnant women talk to each other during hospital visits, and more. She is passionate about humanizing the health care and education systems by showcasing the importance of how we say what we say. She also passionate about understanding children’s perspectives in communication with adults so that we can communicate more compassionately with them. Mary-Pat is currently a lecturer in speech and language therapy at NUI Galway on the lovely west coast of Ireland and you can find her blog at Talk Nua.